Austin hospitals and clinics follow emergency plans, ship in thousands of gallons of water during advisory

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Area hospitals and health clinics are adapting practices to remain in full operation during a citywide boil water advisory issued Oct. 22.

Several trucks, both water tank-style vehicles and 18 wheelers full of pallets of bottled water, have arrived at several St. David’s Healthcare hospitals from Central Texas, Dallas and Houston, Dr. Ken Mitchell, Chief Medical Officer of St. David’s Healthcare said at a press conference the hospital system hosted Oct. 23.

“Each patient needs about 3 gallons, each staff member needs 1 gallon,” Mitchell said. “When you put that across our entire medical system, we needed about 5,000 gallons of additional drinkable water on a daily basis to continue normal or near-normal operations across our health system.”

The water boil notice was issued as a precaution to prevent residents from falling ill from parasites that could be present in the increased silt in Austin’s water supply, however no parasite have been found present yet, according to city officials. Symptoms of an illness caused by parasites include gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and in some cases, a low fever, Mitchell said.

Procedures in place

Hospital systems have emergency protocols in place ahead of time as well as extra water supply on hand, said Andy Davis, Chief Operating Officer for Ascension, Texas, which includes the Seton hospital network.

“We always have emergency procedures in place for times when you may have a shortage of water for other types of disaster planning from a water conservation standpoint,” Davis said.

Despite having emergency plans in place in case of a water shortage including having several days worth of drinkable water available at all times, adapting certain procedures to accommodate a limited water supply presents a challenge for hospital leaders, Mitchell said.

“It’s one thing to secure a few flights of water to get you through this period of time which may now be up to 10 to 14 days,” Mitchell said. “It’s a really big undertaking to ensure that we can continue normal or near-normal operations during this type of water boil warning.”

Davis said Seton’s hospital network in Austin was able to gain assistance from its national network of hospitals to maintain its supply of clean water.

“Based on the information that we have today in terms of water quality, we can sustain these procedures as long as resources are available, through national resources, much longer than 10 to 14 days”

Some of the practices that had to be adapted because of the water boil advisory were bathing, food preparation and sterilization of certain medical instruments, Mitchell said.

St. David’s closed its ambulatory surgery centers on Monday, which are surgery centers that operate off-site from hospitals and canceled elective surgeries and procedures until noon. Mitchell said the ambulatory centers are expected to reopen Wednesday.

Tracking illnesses

As of Oct. 23, Seton and St. David’s both did not report any abnormal spikes in patients seeking care for gastrointestinal issues. Austin Regional Clinic, Baylor Scott & White and Central Health also reported no gastrointestinal illness trends among patients in Austin clinics.

Despite little forewarning from city and county health officials, Mitchell said St. David’s was informed that the advisory was being issued as a precautionary measure.

“They had not actually identified any unusual bacteria or parasites in the water and that the water boil notice was being implemented out of precaution,” Mitchell said.

Area health clinics run by Austin Regional Clinic, Baylor Scott & White and Central Health reported operating normally with bottled water available at clinic locations.

Mitchell said anyone experiencing gastrointestinal illness symptoms should seek medical care quickly.

“If you develop that type of illness during this period of time, don’t waste time, see your physician, seek out medical care and let your healthcare provider determine if you need to be treated a with antibiotics,” he said.

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Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered health care and public education in Austin.
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