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Climate-Driven Atlantic Hurricanes and COVID-19 Transmission: Mitigating between the Concurrent Threats 

In a paper published in the July issue of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, a multi-disciplinary group of experts have provided critical information on the intersection of climate-driven Atlantic hurricanes and COVID-19 transmission – highlighting the complexities and potential solutions to addressing these two threats.

“Dealing with the potential for a hurricane strike while COVID-19 is actively circulating poses a dilemma. The proven mitigation approaches for hurricanes-evacuation and sheltering-huddle people together, while the most effective means for controlling the spread of COVID-19 prioritizes keeping people apart,” said James Shultz, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Disaster and Extreme Event Preparedness (DEEP Center) at the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences, who served as lead author on the paper.

As seen with Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019, climate change has likely led to stronger, wetter, slower-moving, and more dangerous hurricanes. Now more than ever, it is crucial for storm-threatened populations to heed warnings, respond to evacuation orders, and shelter safely in well-fortified homes or community structures away from the coasts. However, these measures necessarily bring people into close proximity.

To prevent COVID-19 transmission, on the other hand, effective strategies involve separating people – sheltering at home, physical distancing, shutdowns, and lockdowns, coupled with wearing masks, hand washing, and hygiene practices. These measures have been credited with preventing an estimated 60 million people from contracting COVID-19 in the United States.

Now, experts are questioning how populations will react when warned to shelter from an oncoming Atlantic hurricane – while COVID-19 is actively circulating in the community. Recently, Hurricane Hanna provided a glimpse and analyzing what happened to be helpful when planning for more powerful storms to come.

Emergency managers, healthcare providers, and public health preparedness professionals should create viable solutions to confront these potential scenarios tom minimize the possibilities of increased rates of hurricane-related injury and mortality among persons who refuse to evacuate due to fear of COVID-19 and increased spread of COVID-19 cases among hurricane evacuees who shelter together.

Improvising solutions to concurrent hurricane and pandemic threats in 2020 that were noted in the Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness paper include:

  • Focus on the 2020 hurricane season. Experts predict that a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine may be available for population-wide immunization before the 2021 hurricane season. If so, the double risk scenario may not reoccur again during future hurricane seasons. 
  • Maintain a COVID-19 prevention lifestyle. To minimize harm from a combined hurricane-pandemic disaster scenario, experts recommend continuing to observe precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. It is much safer to shelter or evacuate, and easier to motivate people to do so if COVID-19 transmission in the storm-threatened community remains subdued.
  • Adapt community sheltering to COVID-19: The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention released guidance on sheltering that attempts to balance the competing risks of minimizing exposure to hurricane hazards and reducing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. The National Mass Care Strategy has also produced documents on related themes, such as COVID-19 congregate sheltering, feeding procedures in congregate shelters, and non-congregate sheltering. FEMA’s 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic Operation Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season provides high-level guidance for local emergency managers to consider when dealing with the COVID-19-transformed risk landscape in their communities.
  • Adapt in-home sheltering to COVID-19 and educate the public. Many of the same principles apply in mass shelters and in homes or smaller sheltered enclaves. Experts note that critical information on how to shelter safely with friends and family is not being widely communicated to the public.
  • Evacuation behavior is a major question mark. Framing and communicating the risks will be critical. The public needs to be informed that Atlantic hurricanes have never been more hazardous, so responding to evacuation orders is essential for family safety – and that sheltering options can be made safer by taking precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
  • Apply lessons from infectious disease outbreaks in shelters during previous hurricanes. Several states along the hurricane coast have a special system in place to identify, register, transport, and shelter persons who have special medical needs, particularly those who are electronically dependent. These shelters have auxiliary power generators and are staffed by public health nurses. Infection control measures that have been successful in special needs shelters can be adapted for congregate mass care settings.
  • Learn from each 2020 storm and continuously refine protocols. Lessons learned early in the season can refine and shape evacuation and sheltering protocols to improve mitigation procedures when stronger storms threaten and strike later in the season. For example, examining what happened during Hurricane Hanna can be useful for fine-tuning responses to stronger storms expected during the peak of the season. 
  • Placing COVID-19, climate change, and synchronous threats in context. Evidence shows that the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme events affecting populations are on the rise. The distinction between naturally occurring disasters and man-made crises is becoming less relevant in light of current multifaceted crises.

“It is possible to successfully diminish both hurricane and pandemic risks, but very difficult to completely neutralize them,” said Dr. Shultz. “Since the time we wrote this paper, just a number of weeks ago, COVID-19 has resurged dramatically throughout all states comprising the ‘hurricane coast’ from Texas to the Carolinas. That certainly increases the degree of challenge.”

Written by Amanda Torres
Published on July 29, 2020