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When nursing homes should evacuate is tricky

By Garry Mitchell
Associated Press Writer

MOBILE — Some of the people whose lives are at stake during a hurricane are lying helpless in nursing homes and hospitals on the Alabama coast, where emergency computer and phone networks have been enhanced to help them when a storm threatens the northern Gulf.

But deciding when to evacuate a hospital or nursing home gets “real tricky,” said Rosemary Blackmon, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery-based Alabama Hospital Association.

“There’s not a magic formula when it comes to evacuation,” she said.

Hospitals and nursing homes near the coast upgraded emergency plans after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, then again after the more powerful Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, devastated Louisiana and coastal Mississippi and damaged West Alabama from Dauphin Island into Tuscaloosa County.

During brainstorming sessions about “the next big one,” evacuation of pajama-clad hospital patients and nursing home residents remains a top priority.

There are some 3,000 nursing home beds in Mobile and Baldwin counties and more than 2,000 hospital beds.

Health officials say it’s better to ride out a storm in a facility that’s well built and has power generators than to evacuate — unless it’s directly in the storm’s path.

“There’s not 3,000 ambulances to transfer the residents. We have to do what’s in their best interest,” said Brian L. McFeely, the administrator at Cogburn Health and Rehabilitation-Midtown Inc.

In deciding whether to evacuate, McFeely said, nursing home operators hope to avoid a tragedy that occurred in suburban New Orleans, where 35 nursing home residents died during Katrina.

That tragedy has brought closer scrutiny to hurricane-related decisions by health officials. Bob Lowry, a spokesman for the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile, said if a hospital evacuation is necessary, patients are moved in order of their conditions.

“Those in immediate danger first, ambulatory next, remaining patients assessed as to their ability to survive the move,” Lowry said.

Where would they go?

Where would they be taken?

Hospitals trade information on available beds and other disaster needs, using a Mobile-based computer monitored by the Alabama Department of Public Health, the Emergency Management Agency and the Alabama Hospital Association.

USA’s Center for Strategic Health Innovation, or CSHI, developed the Alabama Incident Management System, or AIMS, which collected data from more than 90 hospitals during Katrina and provided 24/7 support to the state Health Department as it responded to the hurricane.

“We are more ready now than we’ve ever been,” said Andy Mullins, program manager for the Health Department’s Center for Emergency Preparedness in Montgomery.

Mullins said Thursday the AIMS computer was first used during Ivan and most recently during this year’s Enterprise tornado.

“We’ve added a lot of enhancements,” Mullins said.

Today, AIMs serves not only hospitals, but community health centers, nursing homes, medical needs shelters and emergency medical service units.

“So that we could monitor all those during emergency events,” said Mullins.

The computer is located on the USA campus, with a backup server in Huntsville.

CSHI’s David Wallace, the university’s director of bioterrorism preparedness training, said AIMS works as a management tool. During Katrina, it pinpointed hospital beds statewide for evacuees pouring in from Louisiana and Mississippi.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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