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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 has 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,” 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. “The proven mitigation approaches for hurricanes, such as evacuation and sheltering, huddle people together, while the most effective means for controlling the spread of COVID-19 prioritizes keeping people apart.” 

To mitigate the two concurrent threats, the paper noted potential solutions. They include:

  • Focusing 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. 
  • Maintaining 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. The paper notes that 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. 
  • Adapting community sheltering to COVID-19. The paper notes that the Centers for Disease 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 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 the local emergency managers to consider when dealing with the COVID-19-transformed risk landscape in their communities. 
  • Adapting in-home sheltering to COVID-19 and educating the public. One solution that is overlooked and must be prioritized, experts note, is adapting and extending infection control guidance developed for congregate shelters for use by large segments of the public who will be sheltering together in homes with family and friends. Many of the same principles apply in mass shelters and in homes or smaller sheltered enclaves. Infection control guidances include spacing people apart, not sharing food and utensils, wearing masks, washing hands, checking for symptoms, and separating anyone who is ill. 
  • Evaluating evacuation behavior. A primary unknown for emergency managers is whether, in the era of COVID-19, residents will evacuate when warned to do so. Experts note that framing and communicating the risks will be critical. The public should be informed that Atlantic hurricanes have never been more hazardous. Responding to evacuation orders is therefore essential for family safety. Sheltering options can also be made safer by taking precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19. 
  • Applying 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. Infection control measures that have been successful in special needs shelters can also be adapted for congregate mass care settings. 
  • Learning from each 2020 storm and continuously refining protocols. Lessons learned early in the season, authors note, can refine and shape evacuation and sheltering protocols to improve mitigation procedures when stronger storms threaten and strike later in the season. 
  • Placing COVID-19, climate change, and synchronous threats in context. Evidence shows that the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme events are on the rise. The distinction between naturally occurring disasters and man-made crises is becoming less relevant in light of the 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