Vidant Medical Center is wrapping up “120 to Landfall,” a week-long exercise that puts staff members through scenarios and prepares them for crises during potential hurricanes.

“This exercise series is particularly critical, not only to Vidant Health, but to all the health care facilities in eastern North Carolina since there are literally thousands of patients that could be in harm’s way should a large hurricane impact us,” said Chris Starbuck, healthcare preparedness coordinator for VMC, in a recent press release. “We need to be properly prepared and able to maintain a state of readiness to evacuate, and/or if needed, shelter-in-place these patients.”

The simulation began Feb. 22 and ends today. Each day focuses on preparedness elements such as evacuation, patient transport and statewide communication.

For this scenario, the hospital is preparing for a category four hurricane that is making landfall in Onslow County with no signs of weakening and is also bringing in destructive winds. Because of these factors, the staff must decide what is best for the various patients.

Vidant reports that on average over the course of a year it treats about 44,500 inpatients and more than 171,000 outpatients in its facilities. With thousands of patients to take into consideration, Starbuck said by taking this time to plan, Vidant is able to “identify any weaknesses or gaps in plans so that we can improve upon them prior to an actual event.”

When a threat such as this arises, Starbuck said, “Hospitals will try to decompress its patient load if patients have a safe place to go and as the storm nears, elective procedures will decrease and ultimately stop at some point prior to landfall.”

He said the decision to evacuate and relocate patients “could produce a significant strain to the health care infrastructure across the state.”

Though Vidant has never had to evacuate because of a storm, the threat is always there. Many factors would go into Vidant’s decision to evacuate, such as the intensity of the storm, the speed of the storm, previous rainfall and flooding.

“Leadership must weigh all these factors against the risk of patient movement,” said Starbuck. “Evacuation of the medical fragile is not without risk of possible harm to the patient. Especially if the patient has to be moved long distances.”

This exercise has been conducted for the last three years by healthcare agencies, county emergency management organizations, public health agencies and emergency medical services (EMS) providers from the 29 counties that fall under the Eastern Healthcare Preparedness Coalition (EHPC). Also six counties from the Southeastern Healthcare Preparedness Region (SHPR) have participated in the events.

The EHPC and the SHPR have both put effort into planning meetings, workshops, tabletop exercises, a functional exercise and now the “120 Landfall” exercise.

Though Vidant hopes to never have to use these evacuation plans, Starbuck said it knows the potential for a big storm is always present.

“All hospitals should plan and exercise those plans to stay vigilant in the preparation of events that threaten the safety to those we serve,” said Starbuck.

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