Extreme Weather

Across the U.S., Caring for Patients Weathering Extreme Cold

Local health professionals offer critical services to patients as wintery conditions sweep across the U.S.

An emergency vehicle in Seattle, Washington as Winter Storm Nadia sweeps across the Pacific Northwest. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Fire Department)
An emergency vehicle in Seattle, Washington as Winter Storm Nadia sweeps across the Pacific Northwest. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Fire Department)

A harsh mix of snow and ice is pounding the Pacific Northwest from Winter Storm Nadia, which reached the coast just days after Winter Storm Maya brought similar wintery conditions. More than 91,000 residents are without power in Washington and Oregon and numerous vehicle accidents have been reported due to icy road conditions.

Seattle has received the most snow in 70 years, with more than 10 inches reported in some areas.

In anticipation of extreme weather conditions, Direct Relief staff contacted health partners throughout the Northwest to assess the situation and offer support.

One response came from staff at the Seattle Indian Health Board, a community health clinic in King County, Washington. The clinic serves more than 6,000 patients annually, and specializes in the care of Native people.

Patrick Henry, the board’s director of pharmacy and laboratory services, said the extreme weather is unusual for the area.

“We are not used to cold temperatures and snow in Seattle,” Henry said Monday. “We were closed early three days last week and all day today.”

Dangerous road conditions and low temperatures have impacted the facility’s operating hours, leading to concerns about vulnerable patients in need of medical services. Extreme weather events have a disproportionate effect on those who are already vulnerable, including the elderly, patients with chronic health issues or individuals living outside.

“We are seeing more of our homeless patients who could use items to help with the cold,” explained Henry.

Warm outerwear including socks, blankets, gloves, boots and more were listed as items needed to protect patients from the elements.

Seattle Indian Health Board is doing its best to inform patients in the hopes of returning to normal operating hours early this week. A recent update posted by staff on Facebook offered information about warming shelters for those experiencing homelessness.

Winter Storm Nadia comes just weeks after arctic conditions swept across the Midwest, bringing temperatures well below zero and claiming the lives of at least two dozen. Despite record-breaking temperatures, business continued as usual for some health facilities, including Community Health Care Clinic in Normal, Illinois.

In addition to operating under normal hours, except for January 30 when the wind chill dropped to minus 53 Fahrenheit, the clinic provided daily transportation to keep patients in need of medical services out of the extreme cold.

“We have a fairly large number of patients that take public transit, and the walk to our building is a quarter of a mile from the bus stop,” explained the clinic’s executive director, Mike Romagnoli, in an email to staff.

Exposure to such blistering temperatures can lead to frostbite within minutes, and hundreds of severe cases were reported as a result of the storm, requiring medical care to prevent complications.

To keep patients safe, “we offered to pick them up from the bus stop and bring them back,” wrote Romagnoli, who even made a house call for a medication drop-off during the storm.

“That’s not entirely out of the norm for us,” he added.

Similar to Seattle Indian Health Board, social media became a powerful means of communication for the clinic, which turned to Facebook to share information about warming shelters, safety precautions, and status updates.

While communities across the Pacific Northwest are in the thick of extreme conditions, the harsh mix of snow and ice is slated to move through the Midwest and Northeast later this week. Direct Relief will remain in contact with health centers and free clinics across the region and is ready to respond to medical needs if requested.

In the past week alone, Direct Relief has delivered 272 shipments to 194 health centers and clinics in 36 U.S. states. That includes Washington and other states in the Midwest and Northeast affected by extreme winter weather.

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