FORT MYERS, Fla. – Hurricane Ian has created a burgeoning biohazard situation in at least one Florida hospital near where the storm first made landfall.
Staff at Health Park Medical Center in Fort Myers told NBC News that the facility’s running water went out on Wednesday and has yet to be restored. If water service isn’t restored soon, workers said, they fear outbreaks and infections as a result of the storm.
Patients and nurses were forced to defecate in plastic bags and then store the waste in overflowing biohazard bins, staff and patients said.
Workers said they could not properly disinfect medical instruments for reuse, and some patients went more than a dozen hours without drinking water.
Details of the water outage and its aftermath have been confirmed by four staff members, all of whom asked not to be identified by name for fear of jeopardizing their jobs, and by three patients.
“Without water, we can’t flush the toilet,” said an operational assistant. “We can’t wash our hands. It’s a little disgusting, but we have to do what we have to do.”
Patients and staff have been forced to urinate into containers which are then flushed down the drain, aides said.
“If we have to poop, we poop in a bag and put it in our bio-waste bins,” the assistant said. “If someone accidentally puts toilet paper or poo in the toilet, our poor housekeepers have to come and pick it up so they can empty a bucket of water to try to flush it.”
Lee Health, the hospital’s parent network, said Friday that its facilities and staff have faced many challenges while operating since Ian made landfall.
“The precautions we took were necessary due to the lack of running water in our community. We assure our patients and staff that the actions we have taken today address these challenges, which were the result of a disaster and infrastructure failure of this magnitude. Lee Health is committed to its patients, staff and community, and will do whatever is necessary to ensure safe, quality care for our patients and teams,” said Mary Briggs, spokesperson for Lee Health. , in a press release.
Some staff said they did not blame Lee Health for the situation, saying the facility had already been stretched due to Covid. The addition of a hurricane, which cut off water supplies to the entire county, pushed the hospital’s infrastructure and resources to breaking point.
Health Park Medical Center was one of at least nine Florida hospitals known to have lost access to running water on Thursday.
Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday just east of Fort Myers as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds up to 150 mph. It caused widespread power and sanitation outages. At least 23 people have died in Florida from the storm, officials confirmed late Friday.
Health Park Medical Center began evacuating most-at-risk patients Thursday by ambulance and helicopter.
“They’re carrying children and hospital patients because there’s no water,” said a patient named Roberta Hines, who was treated in hospital after being injured in a fall. Hines, 63, spoke to an NBC News reporter when she walked out of the facility on Friday to have a cigarette. As she spoke, helicopters could be seen landing and taking off from the hospital.
The operating assistant said ambulances from 10 counties came to help transport patients.
“The feat everyone went to is just amazing,” they said.
Without running water, doctors’ ability to perform operations has been compromised. Nevertheless, said the second assistant, several emergency surgeries had to be carried out since the water cut.
“We cannot wash our hands properly to operate on patients,” said the first assistant. “We have no way of sterilizing our instrumentation for surgery, which means whatever instrumentation we have we have to make it last because we can’t reuse it on patients.”
A patient named Michelle, who declined to give her last name, said she was taken to Health Park after the storm because she was hit by a piece of wood.
“Since then the conditions have worsened,” she said, the bandages on her forearms visible. “Not only can’t you use the toilets, they’re running out of food and water. It’s just one thing on top of another.”
Patient Dan Culligan, 70, spent a few days in hospital with persistent back pain after surgery and spoke in the hospital car park while waiting to be transported to a shelter.
“I felt stuck,” he said.
The second operative, a longtime Florida resident who lived through Hurricane Andrew and several other major storms, said the situation at the hospital was “nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
As Ian’s winds intensified, hospital workers said they had moved patients to hallways for safety reasons and brought patients to upper floors from the ground floor.
“They were accepting patients by EMS until the winds hit 80 miles per hour,” the first aide said. “And once that happened, we couldn’t open our doors because it risked compromising the integrity of the hospital.”
The hospital has since resumed receiving some patients, despite the water cut.
The first aide said the hospital parking lot was flooded by the storm.
“We saw our cars floating sideways… My car is wrecked,” they said.
After the power went out, the two aides said, the hospital was forced to rely on a generator and choose between running water or AC power. The administrators chose CA. The generator needs water to run, so a water tanker at the hospital is running it, a surgical technician told NBC News.
After the patients were forced to go without drinking water for hours, the first assistant said, “We ended up giving them the bottled water we had in our bags that we brought.”
Then the red biohazard bags started piling up with trash and feces inside, and people who needed to defecate were directed to specific bathrooms “so we could try to contain the smell,” the assistant said.
But by the end of the day on Friday, the surgical technologist said, the port-o-potties had arrived at the hospital.
Deon J. Hampton reported from Fort Myers, Kalhan Rosenblatt, Aria Bendix and Corky Siemaszko from New York.