Tag Archives: tornado

Health officials clashed over alerting public to fungal infection in wake of Joplin tornado

Following the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo., county public health officials found themselves in conflict with state officials about alerting the public to an aggressive fungal infection that was showing up in people who were injured in the storm and its aftermath.

According to emails obtained by Sarah Okeson of the Springfield, Mo., News-Leader, state officials were concerned about panicking the public and declined to issue the alert.


Photo by Red Cross: Carl Manning GKCARC via Flickr

Local officials, on the other hand, say they wanted to “ensure that any hospital/health care provider would recognize the illness in a timely manner and begin aggressive anti-fungal treatment.” Faced with a denial from the state, the local officials issued a limited alert to 43 health care contacts and to health care providers.

A week after the county’s request – and two days after the News-Leader ran a story written by Okeson about the fungal infections – the state issued a health advisory.

The infections drew the interest of federal officials, including Benjamin Park, who leads an epidemiology team at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Park repeatedly emailed acting state epidemiologist Dr. George Turabelidze offering assistance and emphasizing that “There could be some important public health information that is obtained from this (risk factors, exposures, environmental sampling?) that would be important for future disaster events.” In one email, Park refers to receiving “inquiries all the way up to HHS secretary about this.”

Guidance for releasing information in a public health crisis

The Association of Health Care Journalists recently worked with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) to develop guidelines for releasing information in a public health crisis.

“Stories like these raise questions about how public health agencies respond to outbreaks,” said Charles Ornstein, president of AHCJ’s board of directors. “That’s why I’m particularly glad that AHCJ has worked alongside ASTHO and NACCHO to come up with guidance about the type of information that should be released in public health emergencies. Working collaboratively, journalists and public health officials can improve the information shared during outbreaks and earn the public’s trust.”

The guidelines include advice to health official to consider publicizing an illness or death when “A major epidemic or novel illness is emerging, or a natural disaster or other major event affecting public health has occurred or is anticipated.”

The guidance emphasizes the importance of openness, stating that information should be withheld only when there is a clearly justified reason.


Doctors operated by flashlight, workers scrambled in tornado-ravaged hospital

As you probably know, St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., sustained serious damage in the May 22 tornado that struck that town. Stories about what happened inside the hospital in that 45 seconds and the ensuing moments have started to emerge.

Tornado damage in Joplin, Mo. Photo by KOMUnews via Flickr

Tornado damage in Joplin, Mo. Photo by KOMUnews via Flickr

An emergency room doctor writes about diving for cover and then treating injured patients with limited supplies and only light from a flashlight he held in his mouth as he worked. Photo galleries on Flickr have images showing the damage inside and outside the hospital, as well as the MASH unit that was set up.

Outpatient Surgery Magazine has the tale of an orthopedic surgeon who was in the middle of surgery when the tornado hit. He and his team finished the surgery with a flashlight and while standing in several inches of water. “The doctor who trained me thought it was important to know how to do surgery the way they used to, with manual instruments,” said Dr. Smith. “That should be a part of everybody’s training.” (Hat tip to @JJacksonJr for pointing this piece out.)

Courtney Hutchison, of the ABC News Medical Unit, looks at tornado preparedness for hospitals, especially the failure of the backup generator. As one expert points out, generators need adequate ventilation, which means they are usually near an exterior wall and vulnerable to tornadoes.

A New York Times story describes the frantic race to move patients before the tornado struck and then the aftermath, which included treating patients in the parking lot and using a bus and the beds of pickup trucks to take patients to other hospitals.

St. Johns’ Med Flight manager was briefly sucked out of the hospital:

Suddenly, the glass doors he was holding onto – the ones with the 100-pound magnet to keep them locked – were pulled open. [Rod] Pace was sucked outside briefly and then pushed back in like a rag doll but held on to the handles.

Engineers have started examining the hospital to decide whether it can be salvaged.

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Blythe Bernhard tells the story of a St. Louis doctor, Brian Froelke, who is chief medical officer for the Missouri disaster medical team. That team, of about 40 health care providers, set up a 30-bed tent to serve as a replacement emergency department. Listen to Froelke discuss his experience treating tornado-related injuries. One doctor who was in the hospital when it was hit compared the scene to Haiti after last year’s earthquake.

Thomas Burton of The Wall Street Journal writes about the chaos that the town’s other hospital experienced. It was thrown into darkness and inundated with patients.

Joy Robertson of KOLR-Springfield, Mo., served as a member of the Federal Disaster Mortuary Response Team for several years and responded to the World Trade Center after 9/11.  She explains (about halfway through the story) how the morgue operations work in mass fatality disasters and how victims are identified.