By Eric Cote, Founder, Powered for Patients
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the initial shortage of coronavirus test kits, personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and ventilators in the face of escalating numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases offered a painful lesson about a nation finding itself unprepared for a pandemic of historic proportions.
Today, as the number of Americans diagnosed with COVID skyrockets, hospitalizations have risen to an all-time high, triggering fears that hospitals will be pushed beyond the brink. The resource scarcity driving fears now is no longer ventilators or PPE but the staff needed to care for patients and operate ventilators as well as the physical space hospitals need to care for the sickest patients, including COVID victims and those recovering from heart attacks, strokes and other life-threatening conditions.
As efforts to address shortages of staff and hospital space advance, yet another serious threat worthy of attention looms: the heightened risk of power outages, an especially relevant menace in California where Public Safety Power Shutoffs have already been initiated to reduce the risk of wildfires.
This risk of emergency power failures during power outages is all too real and their consequences can be deadly for patients in hospitals and nursing homes. During California’s 2019 Public Safety Power Shutoffs, two hospitals and five skilled nursing facilities experienced generator failures, and hospital emergency power failures during Hurricane Katrina were blamed for patient fatalities.
The consequences of losing emergency power during an outage are especially dangerous for patients in the estimated 950 non-rural hospitals across the U.S. that rely on a single generator. Another 1,100 critical access hospitals, with 25 beds or fewer and often located in remote areas, also rely on a single generator. Skilled nursing facilities licensed to provide ventilator care represent another significant threat. There are an estimated 1,350 such facilities in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of them have no redundant emergency power. Making matters worse, a number of these single-generator hospitals and skilled nursing facilities rely on generators that in some cases are more than 40 years old.
The loss of emergency power in a single-generator facility caring for ventilator patients would represent a life-threatening emergency, as staff would have only a few hours of ventilator battery life before they would need to manually ventilate patients during the race to replace a failed generator or transfer patients to another facility.
The failure of emergency power in single-generator hospitals and nursing homes is not a remote threat. Powered for Patients documented two such failures during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, each resulting in the emergency evacuation of electricity-dependent patients.
With the record 2020 hurricane season behind us, winter weather joins Public Safety Power Shutoffs as the latest threat to utility power. The famous Kentucky Ice Storm, which struck in January 2009, produced one of the longest power outages in Kentucky history and triggered one of the largest deployments of temporary replacement generators in U.S. history.
Reducing risk in an emergency
Thanks to a technology investment made in 2018 by the Department of Homeland Security, a new tool recently become available that can dramatically change the outcome for patients in single-generator facilities that face threats to emergency power during an outage. The P.I.O.N.E.E.R.® Tool connects to emergency power systems like a heart monitor connects to a patient and provides real-time, automated alerts anytime emergency power in a critical facility faces a threat. P.I.O.N.E.E.R. stands for Power Information Needed to Expedite Emergency Response.
P.I.O.N.E.E.R. was developed by Powered for Patients, a 501c3 non-profit that received a contract from DHS to create a tool that would provide automated alerts anytime emergency power faced a serious threat during a power outage. Automated, real-time warning of a threat to emergency power can be a game changer, especially for patients in single-generator facilities. Armed with this early warning, service providers can accelerate deployment of service teams and government agencies with temporary generators can ready these assets more quickly for deployment. In cases where utilities have the ability to restore power, early warning will accelerate the process. In worse-case scenarios, where emergency power cannot be repaired or replaced in a timely fashion and expedited power restoration is not possible, the early warning provided by P.I.O.N.E.E.R. will enable a significant head start in planning for a safer evacuation of patients.
Initial deployments of the P.I.O.N.E.E.R. Tool are planned for single-generator hospitals in Los Angeles County, a timely move given the rise in COVID hospitalizations and the recent resumption of Public Safety Power Shutoffs. An initiative to expand deployment of the P.I.O.N.E.E.R. Tool to all single-generator hospitals and skilled nursing facilities treating ventilator patients in the U.S. is detailed in the Power Resilience Blueprint, a COVID-inspired plan to address immediate and longer-term threats to emergency power in critical medical facilities. The Power Resilience Blueprint was developed by Powered for Patients and the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, another 501c3 non-profit involved in preparing the nation for the impact of long-term and widespread power outages.
COVID patients requiring the support of ventilators to survive are already facing long odds. P.I.O.N.E.E.R. can reduce another risk facing these patients, especially those in facilities relying on a single generator.