People with medical needs can start applying for special hurricane evacuation services

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The Department of Public Health Coastal Health District is accepting applications for its hurricane evacuation registry for those with functional, access or medical needs.

"By functional, I mean they need some assistance with their activities of daily living to maintain their independence in a shelter, so that might be help with transferring, with eating, with communicating," said Tammi Brown, Chatham County nurse manager for the Department of Public Health. "That's a functional need or a medical need. That would be someone who might be on bed rest or just has a lot of medical problems that warranted they needed to cared for in a facility other than a shelter."

The health department keeps a list of people who need transportation or medical assistance and have no other resource — like family, friends or neighbors — to help them evacuate ahead of a hurricane, and health officials, emergency management agencies and hospitals say they've learned from recent storms, like Hurricane Irma, to improve plans.

"We've learned a lot of things over the last two years in terms of how to accommodate and evacuate those people that are functional, access or medical needs," said Mike Pitts, environmental health county manager for the Chatham County Department of Public Health. "From year to year, we've learned more, and this year, we've taken lessons learned from Irma. We've met with our coalition partners and our community partners to address some issues that came up last time."

Once change for 2018 is encouraging people to apply to be on the registry early.

"We want people to register now, not when a storm is pounding down on us," Brown said.

Now, DPH will stop accepting applications 72 hours before tropical storm force winds arrive.

Another, better medical patient placement and tracking.

"Our purpose in tracking is to make sure that those people that are registered are picked up and transported to a safe spot, and then, once they're transported back in that they are delivered back home," Pitts said.

The health department will arrange transportation in an ambulance, on a paratransit bus, on wheelchair van or bus based on a person's need.

According to the DPH, those with functional or access needs – including children or adults with physical, sensory, or intellectual disabilities who need assistance with the activities of daily living like eating, taking medication, dressing, bathing, communicating, transferring from bed to chair and chair to bed, and toileting – will be evacuated to an inland gymnasium-type setting.

"The functional people we evacuate, we have an agreement with the Augusta School Board, so those individuals will go to a shelter in Augusta," Brown said.

Those with medical needs – including those who need the help of trained medical professionals for things like IV medication or who may be dependent on a respirator or other medical equipment – may be taken to a healthcare facility, which will likely be located several hours inland, according to health officials.

"For our medical individuals, we work with our district office who works with the state office to find placement," Brown said. "So we arrange the transportation, and the state will, based on the availability, decide what type of facility resident will go to. It could be a hospital. It could be an inpatient hospice. It could be a nursing home."

Instead of moving medical needs patients into Chatham County hospitals, district and state health officials will work to place them in inland hospitals and facilities.

"The primary goal is to move them inland. We don't want to keep anyone here, especially if we're under a mandatory evacuation, it wouldn't make sense to keep anyone here," said Chelsea Sawyer, emergency management specialist for Chatham Emergency Management Agency.

That's something Memorial Health and St. Joseph's/ Candler say makes sense.

"If we all are evacuating, there's no need to bring them here because we are trying to evacuate," said Jimmy Gordon, safety and emergency preparedness coordinator for Memorial Health. "At least by them moving them inland, they only have to move one time "

Gordon also said this plan would also allow hospital staff to focus on evacuating patients who are already being treated at Memorial Health.

St. Jospeh's/Candler agreed.

"Since Hurricane Irma, St. Joseph's/ Candler, CEMA and many other public health organizations have recognized that patients with medical needs are best moved out of Chatham County during a hurricane," said Scott Larson, PR and digital manager for St. Joseph's/Candler. "We have worked well together to put into place a plan that will move these most vulnerable residents inland and away from destructive and deadly storms."

The Department of Public Health said this registry should be treated as a last resort for those who need it. The registry is not open to anyone who lives in a nursing home, assisted living or personal care facility, and those people must follow their facility's emergency plan.

The Chatham County Health Department said it had about 300 people on the registry during Hurricane Irma. As of Tuesday, there were 233. Brown said she and other staff are working through that list calling each person to make sure the information listed is correct. If your phone number, address or medical condition has changed and you are already on the registry, Brown asks you to call the health department.

You can apply by calling 1-833-CHD-REGISTER (1-833-243-7344) or downloading and completing the online application.

Once you download and complete the registration form, you must drop off, fax or mail it to your county health department.

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