Texas medical providers bolster preparedness after ‘unprecedented’ 2021 freeze – Austin American-Statesman

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Hospitals and other medical services were in dire straits the week of the February 2021 freeze, when many in Austin lost electricity and water.

Water outages caused St. David’s South Austin Medical Center to move patients to other facilities. Icy and impassable roads reduced the number of available employees. A lack of electric power — and insufficient oxygen on hand — led to the death of at least one assisted living facility resident in Austin. 

These medical facilities had contingency plans, “but not for the duration and unprecedented impact of the storm,” according to an after-action report from Austin and Travis County officials.

A year later, Austin’s hospital officials said they are better prepared now in the event of another disaster that brings catastrophic loss of power and water. 

“As a result of last year’s winter storm, St. David’s HealthCare hospitals analyzed gaps in processes and developed updated action plans to mitigate risk during severe winter weather,” a statement from the hospital said. 

St. David’s this year increased its backup water sources, including bottled water for patients as well as water tank trucks to support other hospital operations. The hospital also acquired more vehicles with four-wheel drive to ferry employees to work. 

In additional, St. David’s officials said they have developed a plan with the city of Austin to better support hospitals during times when water pressure in pipes is too low.

Dialysis centers

Those who receive dialysis treatment were also hit hard by last year’s freeze. Mary Dittrich, chief medical officer of U.S. Renal Care, wrote in a Houston Chronicle op-ed that dialysis providers placed every affected dialysis patient in an operational center. 

“The Texas weather crisis that impacted many of our patients and staff … was a failure of infrastructure, not of dialysis providers,” Dittrich wrote. 

However, Travis County 911 records show that medics responded to four different locations after people who relied on dialysis died.

Suffering from late-stage kidney failure, 71-year-old Diana Martinez Rangel needed dialysis treatments three times a week. But her dialysis center shuttered because of a lack of electricity. The day before Satellite Dialysis in Mueller reopened, she died.

More: The 2021 freeze changed Austin weather history

Her son, Miguel Rangel, said he and his family could not reach Satellite Dialysis, and the center did not contact them about alternative sites. 

After the 2021 freeze, Satellite Healthcare and other Texas providers lobbied for bills — which Gov. Greg Abbott ultimately signed into law in September — that prioritizes dialysis centers for water and power restoration during emergencies.

Nursing homes

Nursing homes also struggled with significant hardships during the freeze.

As subfreezing temperatures crept into Texas again this month, the state’s Health and Human Services department spent several days calling facilities to confirm their preparedness, said Patty Ducayet, long-term care ombudsman for Health and Human Services.

One year later: How the Texas freeze changed us — and Texas

While assisted facilities are required by state law to have evacuation plans, and nursing homes must have generators to power some equipment, neither is required to have generators to keep the heat on if a power outage occurs.

“That will be a concern for me unless and until we see a law change in Texas, not just for cold snaps but also for times of extreme heat,” Ducayet said.