In Jackson, Mississippi, where flooding of the Pearl River earlier this month caused a water system failure that plunged the Magnolia State into a state of emergency, health system executives are scrambling to maintain operations while treating more patients.
Jackson’s St. Dominic Hospital has been able to function because the facility has its own water system. Still, leadership is having to purchase backup water sources, reshuffle outpatient clinic operations and care for patients and staff members affected by the shortages.
“What’s happening in Jackson and what’s happening around the state are also lessons that can be learned for the rest of the country,” said Scott Kashman, market president and CEO St. Dominic Hospital. “We’re starting to have a broader discussion around the water and infrastructure issues. It's been a long time, and it’s a problem that’s going to need to be solved by some generation-–and it should be ours.”
A growing number of infrastructure failures and climate-change disasters have jeopardized an essential component of healthcare delivery. Providers across the country are scrambling to find alternative water sources, reinforcing the need for regional, cross-facility planning and coordination, disaster preparation experts said.
Federal guidelines do not stress regional coordination among hospitals grappling with water supply issues, said Glen Mays, a professor of health system management and policy at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus.
“Each hospital plans individually for their emergency water supply needs, so these individual plans may be inadequate in the event of a widespread regional water supply issue,” he said.
Examples of the consequences of inaction are plentiful, experts said. The city of Flint, Michigan, for instance, is still suffering from the fallout of its 2014 water crisis. Soon after the city began supplying residents with Flint River water in April 2014, residents started complaining about discolored water, which had dangerously high levels of lead.
Chronic disinvestment in infrastructure, especially in underserved communities, continues to threaten the health of patients from Flint to Jackson to Baltimore, said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative.
Investing in and advocating for infrastructure that is up-to-date and climate resilient should be considered preventative care and a priority for health systems, she said.
“Our infrastructure is outdated for this century and is completely untenable for the growing demands and unpredictability of climate change,” Hanna-Attisha said. “The healthcare and societal costs of reacting to crisis after crisis are untenable—lack of safe water for patients or unreliable power directly impacts patient care.”
The recent emergency in Jackson has brought local government officials and leaders together to upgrade the public water infrastructure and bolster independent systems. One water treatment plant in Jackson is more than 100 years old—the average lifespan of those systems is about 40 years, said Tom Cotter, executive director of Healthcare Ready, a not-for-profit group that helps coordinate disaster response efforts.
“That is inexcusable,” he said. “These are known vulnerabilities. No one in Jackson, Mississippi, is surprised by this event. There needs to be a concerted effort to identify communities that experience water issues over and over.”
Officials in Baltimore and Las Vegas, New Mexico, are also grappling with water issues.
Many Baltimore residents had been under a water boil advisory since Monday, after city officials learned that its water supply had E. coli bacteria. The advisory was lifted Friday.
Grace Medical Center, a LifeBridge Health hospital in West Baltimore, opened a virtual command center earlier this week to ensure that patient care is not affected, a spokesperson said.