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8 dead at nursing home as Fla. grapples with heat, outages

The Washington Post

September 13. 2017 11:55PM
Hollywood Police chief Tomas Sanchez and Raelin Storey answer questions outside of a Hollywood nursing home that had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power, Sept. 13, 2017. Three people died at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills and three others later died at Memorial Regional Hospital. (John McCall, South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS)

Police opened a criminal investigation Wednesday into the deaths of at least eight people at a South Florida nursing home that apparently was without air conditioning amid ongoing power outages from Hurricane Irma, according to local officials.

Three people died at the facility in Hollywood and three others were pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital, said officials in the city between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Two other deaths were reported later Wednesday afternoon.

Authorities evacuated more than 100 other people from the facility, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, including bringing some to nearby hospitals. Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said it was not immediately clear what caused the deaths at the nursing home, which is believed to have lost air conditioning after the storm.

“We’re conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths that occurred here,” Tomas Sanchez, the Hollywood police chief, said at a news briefing Wednesday. “It’s a sad event.”

Sanchez said that officials believe the situation at the nursing home “may be related to the loss of power” caused by Irma, but said they were not ruling anything out. He declined to say whether the electricity was entirely out at the facility or if only the air conditioning was out, saying that was still under investigation.

The rehabilitation center is located across the street from Memorial Regional Hospital, the flagship facility of the Memorial Healthcare System and one of the largest hospitals in the state. An official from Memorial said that the health-care network was helping with evacuating people from the rehabilitation center, which is not part of the Memorial system, and will take some to its other hospitals in the region.

The facility had a history of poor inspections and citations. The facility is rated “below average” on the Medicare website, which evaluates facilities based on performance in health inspections, staffing and quality measures. The facility’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement obtained by the Miami Herald that the center “evacuated this morning due to a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility’s air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane. Unfortunately, early this morning several patients experienced distress and there were three fatalities at the facility and three at the hospital they were transferred to.” Carballo did not return messages left by The Washington Post.

Randy Katz, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Memorial Regional Hospital, said fire and rescue received a call early Wednesday morning about a patient in distress at the rehabilitation facility. The authorities quickly realized the facility had no air conditioning, Katz said, and transported the patient to the hospital. A nurse from Memorial Regional walked over to the rehabilitation center around 6 a.m. Wednesday and decided it was in the best interest of the patients to get them out of the building.

“There was no air conditioning,” Katz said. “The temperatures, particularly on the second floor, were extremely hot . . . there were a number of patients who looked like they were in distress.”

Katz said hospital staff went room to room in the facility, locating patients and evacuating the building. The most critically ill patients were put on stretchers and wheeled across the street to the Memorial Regional emergency room, he said. The hospital activated a mass casualty event. It is treating 115 patients who were taken to various hospitals in the system. They are being treated mainly for dehydration, respiratory issues including respiratory failure, heat exhaustion and high fevers.

“There’s no reason patients that age with chronic medical issues should be in a facility without air conditioning,” Katz said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, a former hospital chief executive, said in a statement that the situation is “unfathomable.”

Scott said that the facility reported Tuesday afternoon that they that they had power and access to fans and spot coolers.

The deaths occurred amid the widespread power outages that have gripped Florida since Irma. At a news conference, Florida Power and Light, the state’s largest utility, said it serviced portions of the facility.

Robert Gould, the utility’s chief communications officer, said he understood that certain parts of the facility had power. He said Broward County did not list the facility as critical infrastructure — the places where restoring power is a top priority after a storm — in a hurricane planning meeting earlier this year.

“This facility was not listed as a top critical” by Broward County, Gould said.

“What we’ve seen is something extremely tragic that points to the need to having plans in advance when it comes to emergency preparation. I would be remiss if i didn’t say our deepest sympathies goes out to the families of those lost their lives,” Gould said.

Millions of people across Florida have lost power since Irma began lashing the state, and utilities have warned that some of the outages could extend for days or even weeks. This has cut off air conditioning for scores of Floridians, and it poses an acute danger for the particularly young or old in a state known for its sweltering temperatures.

Statewide, about 3.7 million customers — or more than 36 percent — remained cut off from power, emergency officials said. Florida’s heat adds a perilous element to the ongoing outages. In Hollywood, where the nursing home is located, temperatures are expected to reach the 90s this week.

The storm has presented risks and challenges for the elderly population in Florida, where about 1 in 5 residents are 65 or older. People in that age range are more prone to heat-related health problems because they do not adjust as well as younger people to sudden shifts in temperature.

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