As Hurricane Ida strengthened Saturday, hospitals closest to the Louisiana coastline evacuated some of their most critical patients and prepared to lose power while caring for higher-than-usual numbers of patients amid the surging coronavirus pandemic.

With Louisiana’s coastal regions — particularly Morgan City and Houma — in the direct path of the Category 4 storm, Ochsner Health System evacuated 17 of their most critically ill patients from Ochsner St. Mary in Morgan City, Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma and Ochsner St. Anne in Raceland. Those three hospitals still have collectively about 100 patients left.

“All of the facilities remain open for emergency services, so we’re here to serve the community,” said Michael Hulefeld, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Ochsner. “We don’t pack up and leave in the event of a storm like this.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards said during a news conference Saturday that full-scale hospital evacuations were not possible. Across the state, 2,450 people remain hospitalized with COVID. The fourth surge has filled hospitals to capacity, but the number of patients currently hospitalized has dropped by about 20% over the last 10 days, which Edwards called "very helpful going into this hurricane."

Still, transferring patients from one hospital to another has proved challenging. 

Dr. Robert Hart, Ochsner’s chief medical officer, said the system’s main campus in New Orleans would usually house patients who needed transfers from other locations during past hurricanes. But this time around, the 17 critical patients were scattered across hospitals where they could find room for them, including Ochsner locations in Baton Rouge, the West Bank and Kenner. Another challenge has been determining the logistics of how to keep enough staff on hand to power the hospitals over the next few days, while keeping them socially distanced enough to limit COVID’s spread, Hart said.

"Things are very tight," Hulefeld said. "We still have nearly 800 COVID patients in-house. And so that definitely creates stress and strain from a capacity perspective and a staffing perspective." 

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Hulefeld said the bayou region hospitals in the storm’s direct path have 10 days’ worth of supplies. Each facility has a backup generator and Ochsner is keeping a backup fuel truck at St. Anne “should we be on generator power for an extended period.” Some of the hospitals also have their own water wells should water infrastructure go down — a major problem after Hurricane Laura for hospitals around Lake Charles.

Hospital officials across Louisiana made it clear Saturday that their doors remain open for emergencies, regardless of Hurricane Ida’s power.

“Our physicians and staff are equipped to stay on-site to care for the increased number of patients that are hospitalized during the hurricane,” said Phyllis Peoples, CEO of Terrebonne General, in a statement Saturday.

And other hospitals announced changes to staffing and patient care plans. Most hospitals in southeast Louisiana said they were closing clinics and urgent care centers while calling off elective procedures Sunday and Monday.

Ochsner in Baton Rouge is limiting visitors on Sunday to one per patient in most cases and only immediate family for patients in end-of-life care.

North Oaks Medical Center in Hammond announced Saturday that it will close main entrances to most of its facilities on Sunday, but the emergency department will stay open during the storm.

Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge said they will switch to generator power before Hurricane Ida even makes landfall “to ensure no interruptions in patient care.”