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Sharing Lessons From Sandy Could Mean Healthier Recovery Next Time Around

Andrew Kitchenman | April 5, 2013

Health commissioner's roundtables gets first responders, local and state officials talking.

Add deadly carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly vented generators and toxic mold to the many health hazards visited on the state by Hurricane Sandy. That helps explain why healthcare providers from New Jersey's first responders to the state’s top health official are looking to identify and apply lessons learned to head off similar crises during the next bout of extreme weather.

Sandy will have a lasting effect on how the state prepares for the future, Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd said yesterday after completing a round of forums with healthcare officials and emergency responders.

One major change: The state will take steps in future disasters to make sure that residents are informed on how to operate electric generators before a storm hits and power outages sever communication links.

The conversations at the forums have ranged from details of data collection to covering the most troubling health challenges from the storm, including the immense difficulty of evacuating hospitals and nursing homes that were flooded or lost power.

The roundtable event led by O’Dowd at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck was the last of four this year that brought together hospital, nursing home, hospice, and local emergency officials to discuss what lessons can be drawn from their disaster responses. The events were held in four of the counties that were hardest hit by Sandy: Bergen, Hudson, Monmouth, and Ocean. O’Dowd said the events had several goals, including inspiring local and regional efforts to plan for future disasters.

A lasting lesson from the storm was the challenge posed by attempting to communicate emergency response information at a time when many news sources were inaccessible due to power outages.

That led to many health problems, including an uptick in carbon monoxide poisoning a couple of days after the storm, caused by improperly vented generator exhaust.

“As a result, we’re going to try to do some additional education when we’re not in the middle of a disaster so that they can learn to better use generators,” O’Dowd said of residents.

The complicated process of transferring patients who must be evacuated from one healthcare facility to another posed a different set of challenges during the storm. A particularly daunting one: keeping patients’ medical records with them during the transfers, O’Dowd noted.

As health systems shift to electronic health records, the storm has taught the importance of making sure those records are readily transferrable, she said. O’Dowd added that state health officials are working to foster ties between local institutions that will need to share this information in the future.

The commissioner said the roundtable discussions have given her a chance to meet many of the emergency response leaders who coordinate with health officials, and the officials themselves, who were brought together to begin planning.

Successful strategies used during the storm can be replicated in the future, O’Dowd said. These include providing medication both through a mobile pharmacy van offered by CVS and by issuing waivers allowing hospital pharmacies to distribute medication to local residents.

She sees these conversations resonating across the country, since the storm was the first time that some counties received federal disaster response assistance -- which could be used, for instance, to help with case management for patients who were transferred.

Along with compiling lessons learned, state health officials are combating the continuing effects of the storm, including dealing with mold in buildings that are being renovated. O’Dowd has recorded a public service announcement about mold, during which she advises, “when in doubt, throw it out." She's also done one on protective steps to take while making repairs and renovations.

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