Though hospitals have contingencies in place to handle emergency situations, they have not been spared the negative effects of power outages and low water supply that have affected residents around the Rio Grande Valley.
Namely, hospital admissions increased with people who require treatment through electronic devices, according to Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority.
“We’re definitely seeing a significant uptick in people being admitted to the hospital for their inability to be safe at home because of the lack of electricity for their oxygen supplementation machines or oxygen concentrators,” Melendez said Tuesday. “We’re also seeing numerous people being admitted to the hospital because they don’t have electricity in the hemodialysis centers, so they have to be brought in to the hospital.”
Hospitals, Melendez noted, are required by law to have multiple generator systems.
“The hospitals, they’re all running,” he said. “I don’t know how many are actually running on generator power alone but definitely they all have generators.”
He added that while most nursing homes also have backup generators, there were some that lost power.
“There are some nursing homes that are also without electricity and those that are significantly frail also require electrical equipment so they’re also being sent to the hospital,” Melendez said. “So absolutely, our volumes are going up.”
The biggest issue for DHR Health has been the low water pressure that’s affected the entire city of Edinburg, leading the city to issue a boil water notice to residents.
During an update Tuesday afternoon, City Manager Ron Garza said one of their two water treatment plants was back running at 100% while the other was at about 50% and they were in the process of filling up their water towers.
Garza added the city expected water pressure to return to normal overnight.
“The primary issue has been the loss of water in our facilities because we’re located in Edinburg and as you know the city of Edinburg has had an issue with the water supply in the city, which I know they are dealing with as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Carlos Cardenas, DHR Health board chairman.
In response to the water shortage, Cardenas said they activated their emergency supply plan and immediately began supplying their facilities with pallets of bottled water and “coordinated the delivery of both water supply containers as well to support the infrastructure of all our facilities.”
Cardenas pointed out that hospitals have been in a declared emergency for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and had already initiated an emergency plan.
“This is another emergency, it’s an emergency that we drill for and an emergency that we prepare for,” Cardenas said. “We have an emergency disaster plan that we enacted and we have an incident command structure that we enacted so we very quickly moved to make it possible to have water supply available for our patients and our staff as part of our emergency response plan.
“And so, at this point, none of our services have been interrupted. We continue to work on an emergency footing.”
Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen similarly assured they had plans in place in case of these types of emergencies.
“At Rio Grande Regional Hospital, our first priority is the safety of our patients, colleagues and physicians,” Adriana Morales, director of community and public relations for the hospital, said in an email.
“As part of our overall emergency management planning, Rio Grande Regional Hospital performs practice drills to assess our response in the case of disasters, including tropical storms, hurricanes and winter weather events,” Morales wrote. “Currently, our preparations include assessing readiness for staffing, supplies, securing our facilities which include testing our emergency generators, as well as assessing our capacity in the event of emergent needs.”
However, South Texas Health System McAllen, also known as McAllen Medical Center, reported a brief loss of power Monday and flickering power throughout the day, according to Tom Castañeda, a spokesman for STHS.
“But the power remained on, and we continued with business as usual,” Castañeda said via email. “STHS McAllen is on two electrical grids, one from McAllen, the other from Pharr. So should one be affected, we immediately move to the other.”
“Should either of those systems fail, we have a generator on site, and we have five days of fuel on hand, should the need arise,” Castañeda continued. “But at this time, we are not expecting any issues related to power outages.”
“If you’re being cared for inside the hospital, whether for an outpatient procedure or admitted into our care, the quality of care has not been affected,” he said.
The hospital has not experienced water shortages but they have ordered an additional palette of water as a precaution.
Castañeda added that they also began accepting transfers from other area hospitals affected by the water shortage.
“There have been delays in the shipment of food from our vendors due to the inclement weather across the country, but we currently have a 96-hour supply of food on hand,” he said. “Additionally, we have contracted a local vendor to supply us additional food as a precaution.”
South Texas Health System Edinburg, also known as Edinburg Regional, experienced a brief power outage early Sunday morning, as the storm made its way across the Valley but their generator immediately kicked in and power was restored minutes later, Castañeda said, who added there had not been an interruption of power since then.
Edinburg’s water shortage had affected water flow to that facility but they secured bottled water for their patients and staff while they await resumption of services.
“For the most part, we do have functioning toilets at this time, with additional water on hand for them, if needed,” Castañeda added.
Their freestanding emergency departments in Alamo, Mission, Weslaco and on McColl Road are fully operational at the moment, with no issues being reported while those located on Monte Cristo and Ware Road are operating on generator power.
Those two location also experienced water issues but they were able to secure water for plumbing purposes and currently have enough water for staff and patients, according to Castañeda.
“Other than an inability to conduct CT scans and X-rays, those facilities are operating normally,” he said.
Additionally, STHS’ acute care facilities have delayed all non-emergency surgeries as a precautionary measure.
“But overall, the people of the Rio Grande Valley can rest assured that their loved ones are safe in our care at any of our facilities during this historic weather situation we’re currently facing,” Castañeda stated.
The water issue in Edinburg also led DHR Health to announce Tuesday that they were postponing all COVID-19 vaccinations until Thursday. Cardenas assured, though, that the vaccine doses were not negatively affected.
“Let me make it very clear, DHR has not lost power,” he said. “We have the ability to care for our patients with power, we have back up generators, our freezers have not been affected at all by any of this.”
He explained it was simply a water issue and that whenever water availability becomes a problem, they have to take the public into account.
“We have postponed vaccination for a short period of time until the water supply is restored,” he said, “and it makes it possible to continue to deal with the public in a safe way where people can come and they have a bathroom facility easily available to them, etc.”
In addition to some vaccination delays, Melendez said some COVID-19 patients are delaying treatment because of the weather.
“People are not going to their doctor’s offices,” Melendez said, “they just don’t want to get out, it’s too cold and that’s going to delay people getting treatment.”
As the low temperatures persist, Melendez advised to be careful of hypothermia.
“If you have people that are of advanced age or that are immunosuppressed, like diabetics, (they) have to be extra careful,” Melendez said, adding that sometimes people don’t realize they’re becoming hypothermic. “It’s important that people should cover their heads and their extremities because that’s where most of the heat dissipates — from the top of your head and from your hands and your feet, especially young children.”
Symptoms of hypothermia that people should look out for are numbness and tingling in the fingers and extremities, blanching of the skin as blood vessels constrict, and chills.
“They may start getting confused and finally they get very sleepy,” he said. “So if you have elderly family members with dementia or with diseases that limit their ability to express themselves, people should be watching out for these signs and symptoms of hypothermia.”
Cardenas urged that people continue to take health precautions even if they’ve already received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Even if you’ve been vaccinated you need to continue to maintain your hygiene, wash your hands to the ability that you can, using hand sanitizer as well,” Cardenas said. “In addition it’s important to use a mask, maintain social distance and try to limit congregating; and I know that all of these measures are being taken into account by all of the shelters as well.”