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How PG&E's historic blackouts will put California's medical emergency planning to the test

Cathie Anderson, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in Health & Fitness

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Health care providers and officials around Northern California said that PG&E's electrical grid shutdown, expected to trigger blackouts in 34 of 58 counties on Wednesday, will test on a grand scale whether residents and medical care facilities have done enough to planning for medical emergencies.

"Placer County is expected to be impacted by the public safety power shutoff event," said Michael Romero, a program manager with that county's Health & Human Services Department. "More than 50,000 meters, which could be up to 150,000 residents, could be impacted. Obviously, we're very concerned with the impact."

Romero urged residents to formulate a plan for to ensure their health needs would be met. That ranges from keeping food and water on hand to ensuring ensuring you know how to manually open your garage to ordering an additional oxygen tank for a loved one who's dependent on the equipment, he said.

"Often, the plan is friends and family who aren't in the impacted area," Romero said. "Your best support system is the support system you have on a regular basis – friends and family. We encourage people to have that plan – that friend or family member – outside the impacted area that you might have to stay with a few days."

Health care providers all around the state have been preparing for the worst-case warnings, that they and local residents may have to go without power for a week.

Early Tuesday morning in Lake County, Ruth Lincoln said that she was feeling as though her staff and clients at Hospice Services of Lake County had gotten some pretty good news. That's when she got her first look at a map showing local addresses that fell within the blackout zone. While a number of clients would be affected, Lincoln said, the hospice's central hub wasn't and would still be able to serve as a backstop.

Then came the afternoon update, she said, and it was a game changer. The hospice's hub now was in the blackout area, Lincoln said, and she had to schedule a call to regroup with the organization's health care partners.

Fortunately, she said, the hospice staff had done work over the last few months to help clients and their families update or develop emergency plans for their households. They spent Tuesday ensuring that clients knew whether their homes were within the anticipated blackout zone, triple-checking that they had the medication, equipment and alternate power sources they needed.

"It's going to be a real test of our emergency operations plan because we are spread through the county, providing services from east to west and north to south all around the perimeter of Clear Lake," Lincoln said.

Rene Hamlin, the development director at El Dorado County's Snowline Hospice, said that besides developing emergency plans for clients, hospices also must ensure they know which staff and volunteers will be available to continue offering services because their homes are usually within the same affected area as their clients.

They ensure arrangements are in place for transport, and they just might have to try and get services to new clients despite an emergency. Three new patients contacted Hospice Services of Lake County to start service this week, Lincoln said, and her staff is working to ensure they have what they need amid a blackout that will affect doctor's offices, pharmacists, medical equipment suppliers and hospitals.

Placer County's Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital, for instance, is within the potential blackout zone, Romero said.

Sutter Health leaders said in a statement that they are in communication with PG&E regarding public safety power shutoff plans in the communities they serve, and they are putting procedures in place to minimize the impact and leverage the strength of their integrated network.

Sutter Auburn Faith and other hospitals are required by law to have backup generators to ensure they can provide essential services in the event of an outage, said Jan Emerson-Shea, the spokesperson for the California Hospital Association, and they may reschedule or move elective procedures to facilities that are not affected.

"Existing state and federal law requires all hospitals to have 72 hours of backup diesel generation, so when a power outage occurs, the backup generators are supposed to just immediately kick in," Emerson-Shea said. "If there are any surgical procedures under way, there should be very little impact involved. They're structured to kick in right away. The challenge with backup generation is that it was never designed to power the whole hospital ... .The backup generators don't power the chillers, the air-conditioning units and things."

They do drills to test that backup generation, she added, because it's part of overall disaster preparedness.

Nursing homes, now more commonly called skilled nursing facilities, must have a plan to operate for at least 96 hours on backup generators, said Jason Belden, the disaster preparedness manager at the California Association of Health Facilities.

"The generator is required to power emergency plugs throughout the building. It's also required to power fire protection systems like fire alarms, sprinklers, those kinds of things," he said. "The only real problem could be keeping the buildings cool if the temperature gets a little hot outside. That is the main source of concern for us."

 

Health care officials had a number of recommendations help prevent medical emergencies during power outages:

--Have food and water on hand. Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer. As they melt they, they could be a source of water.

--Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry to give them a longer shelf life. Closely pack frozen food, so it can help to keep it at a safe temperature for longer.

--Get coolers to keep refrigerated food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.

--If you're in doubt about whether food is still good to eat, throw it out rather than risk food poisoning.

--Make a plan to keep insulin and other refrigerated medication cool.

--Know how to manually open garage doors. It can be a physical strain, so have a plan in place if you are not certain you can do it.

--Learn how to safely operate electric generators before an emergency. If you aren't well-versed in operating a generator, you risk being poisoned by carbon monoxide, shocked, electrocuted or burned.

--You may need cash to purchase medications or other medical necessities because credit card machines may not work.

--Pharmacies in your area may close due to lack of power, so ensure you have at least a week's supply of medication at home.

--Have battery chargers on hand for medical equipment and cell phones.

--Keep a battery operated radio and flashlight on hand.

--Fuel up your vehicle ahead of any power outage, as pumps may not work, lines may be too long and stations may run out of gas. You may have to drive quite a distance to get to an open pharmacy or emergency medical services. Be sure you have cash on hand for gas, just in case the credit card machine does not work.

--If you live in an affected area, ask friends and relatives outside the area whether they can help with refrigerator space or accommodations.

(c)2019 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com

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