The LA-HRH interviewed Dr. Stephen Murphy, PhD, about the challenges
of the 2020 Hurricane Season coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Murphy is an Assistant Professor at Tulane University School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine; Department of Environmental Health Sciences; and Program Director of the MPH degree in Disaster Management. His expertise includes emergency management and public health emergency preparedness and response.
Excerpts from that interview are included below. For the full interview,
What should residents of areas threatened by hurricanes be doing to prepare?
Beyond what is typical in hurricane planning, everyone should remember the unique needs posed by Covid-19 such as disinfectants, soap, sanitizer, masks, and gloves. Residents should examine evacuation plans and have multiple destinations if possible. Also understand what an accelerated timeline would do to your plan (e.g., consider fueling vehicle earlier, be ready to leave earlier, and have different routes for each potential destination). Pay attention to authorities throughout hurricane season and heed their warnings.
Stocking supplies, whether for an evacuation or shelter-in-place strategy, is an equity issue. Low income populations might have greater needs, fewer locations to obtain resources, or even fewer financial resources to meet those needs. Jurisdictions, response organizations and other stakeholders active in disasters should continue, and increase when possible, their strong support to these groups as part of preparedness planning.
Given the concerns regarding Covid-19 and increasing cases in some areas, residents may feel reluctant to evacuate. Should this be a factor in decision-making for individual residents?
Bottom line – no, the overarching message remains the same for residents – get out of harm’s way. If you live in an area susceptible to storms or are ordered to evacuate, do not let Covid-19 influence your decision to get out of the storm’s path and impact zone. If there is a major hurricane bearing down on your city, the magnitude of that hurricane is a much greater, immediate risk to life than the spread of a pandemic.
What should public health emergency response leaders prioritize in preparation for sheltering residents?
It is important for planners in hurricane-prone cities to explore locations where they can set up an easily modifiable, general population shelter. Planners should consider expanding the number of shelter locations so (a) they have existing agreements when the time arises, and (b) to provide the recommended physical distancing element needed for Covid-19. A single shelter might not meet basic protective measures for the pandemic and planners should assess this – and assess it now. Earlier in the pandemic, many hotels were vacant but now that most of the Gulf Coast has reopened those options are less available. Regardless of where the shelter operates, emergency planners/operators need to 'de-densify' congregate shelters open for evacuation as soon as possible.
Are there specific assessments emergency planners should consider at shelter locations?
Several small tweaks to typical assessments can serve as helpful reminders in the current climate.
- Do facilities have the space to safely shelter residents with physical distancing in mind? Has the layout actually been considered and mapped out to ensure sleeping cots are not too closely positioned to one another? For example, a staggered, head-to-toe arrangement has been proposed as helpful in reducing exposure to neighboring respirations.
- What is known about the facility’s air exchange capacity? Does the facility owner know the specification of the system? Who can assess this at a shelter?
Evidence suggests that smaller particles (aerosols) pose increased risk in areas lacking proper, adequate ventilation or ones with poor air exchange. A congregate sheltering strategy in a poorly ventilated facility might be problematic and ill-advised. You have to ask yourself - When was the last time you visited a gymnasium or large assembly hall – typical large spaces used in shelter strategies – where you felt it was well ventilated?