Nursing homes juggle hurricane evacuations amid virus fears

This GOES-16 GeoColor satellite image taken Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, at 4:50 p.m. EDT., and provided by NOAA, shows Hurricane Laura over the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Laura strengthened Wednesday into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane," The National Hurricane Center said.  Laura is expected to strike Wednesday night into Thursday morning along the Louisiana-Texas border. (NOAA via AP)
This GOES-16 GeoColor satellite image taken Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, at 4:50 p.m. EDT., and provided by NOAA, shows Hurricane Laura over the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Laura strengthened Wednesday into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane," The National Hurricane Center said. Laura is expected to strike Wednesday night into Thursday morning along the Louisiana-Texas border. (NOAA via AP)

Dozens of nursing homes evacuated their residents as Hurricane Laura bore down Wednesday, but many others with a choice just stayed put, concluding the risk of breaking their coronavirus lockdowns could be more deadly than the storm.

“It is always best if you can remain in an environment that is familiar,” said Charles Solomon, who runs The Resort at Texas City, a nursing home with 79 residents near the Galveston Bay shoreline.

The facility suffered a COVID-19 outbreak that infected 55 residents, killing 17, but now is free of cases. Because it is outside the evacuation zone and has never flooded in the past, the staff decided it would be best to stay in place, particularly given fears of reintroducing the virus.

“Since we are a COVID-free facility, it would be best to remain that way,” Solomon said.

Shifting storm tracks and the trauma of transferring vulnerable residents can make the calculus of whether to stay or to go difficult for nursing home operators. The added risk of virus exposure convinced some homes that they’re better off braving the storm in place.

Others, largely those under mandatory evacuation orders, have scrambled to move residents inland as Laura nears. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission said 64 long-term care facilities housing about 1,500 residents had evacuated as of Wednesday afternoon. In Louisiana, more than 800 residents in 11 nursing homes were also evacuated, according to the state health department.

Ron Payne, CEO of Southwest LTC, which runs nursing homes across Texas, has been through multiple storm evacuations over the years. But this week’s evacuations of about 350 residents at four of his homes were far different than any in the past.

He needed twice as many buses, ambulances and other vehicles to move residents to ensure COVID-19 patients weren’t transported alongside uninfected people. Staff were dressed, head to toe, in protective gear. And facilities’ emergency plans on where they would dispatch residents to were upended if those facilities weren’t admitting those with the coronavirus.