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Last week’s widespread electricity blackouts across California revealed a dangerous vulnerability in America’s health care safety net.
Modern health care is built on the assumption of steady power from the electricity grid. But a Direct Relief survey during last week’s outage revealed that only 44% of California’s community health centers have a back-up energy source available when the electricity grid fails. Even clinics that had back-up generators found they didn’t provide enough power to operate all their systems, forcing operational triage. Seven million Californians depend on nonprofit community health centers for primary health care, especially in rural and low-income urban areas.
Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s biggest electric utility, last week shut down its power grid in 34 of California’s 58 counties, warning that some customers could be cut off for up to a week.
More than 730,000 locations were cut off, leaving an estimated 2 million people without power. PG&E took the drastic step during a period of severe wildfire risk, with strong dry winds matching conditions when downed power lines sparked devastating fires in 2017.
PG&E has acknowledged that many of its long-distance transmission lines and towers crossing California’s forests are in decrepit condition, and that its equipment ignited several of California’s massive wildfires in recent years. While this was the first preventive power cut of this scale in the United States, many more are expected to follow. PG&E plans to continue preventive shutoffs when conditions demand, as do other utilities such as Southern California Edison, the state’s second-largest power provider.
Modern health care is almost entirely dependent on availability of electricity:
The government-mandated shift to electronic health records means little or no patient health information may be available if local power or data transmission fail.
Direct Relief’s survey found that 97% of health centers have medications on site requiring refrigeration. Insulin, vaccines and many other medications must be kept within a specified temperature range; if they fall out of that range for more than a short period they must, by law, be discarded.
Much of the equipment in a modern medical office requires electricity to operate.
Direct Relief’s survey was shared with 114 health center partners in California, as well as with 175 health center members of the California Primary Care Association. Of the 70 that responded, 97% (68 health facilities) store refrigerated medications on site, but only 44% (31 health facilities) have a back-up energy source available.
Of those 31 health facilities with a back-up source:
68% (21 sites) have diesel back-up generators,
13% (4 sites) use propane,
10% (3 sites) use natural gas,
10% (3 sites) have solar, and
3% (1 site) have both diesel and solar
Even among the 44% that had back-up power, that power is limited. Back-up generators powered by propane, diesel or natural gas are often able to provide only a limited amount of power. Direct Relief last week spoke with several health centers that had to make power triage decisions: they could either keep their pharmaceuticals refrigerated, or could run their computer networks to access health records, or power their air conditioning and lights.
In comments in their survey responses, clinics that do have back-up power generation available said:
“But we are not able per PG&E to have back-up batteries to store our solar power as we feed back into the grid which has forced us to get a diesel generator which will not quite meet all of our needs.”
“We only have power back-up generators for our vaccine units and they can provide only 12 hours coverage at a time.”
“The solar is only at one site and only backs up certain items, and the system only can supply 4 hours of lighting – not all night.”
“Portable generators gas and propane for powering refrigeration, have to be run outside with cord to fridges.”
Winters Health Care, which serves an overwhelmingly poor population in rural Northern California, chose to power their medical records system, lighting the clinic with whatever they could find at the hardware store and transporting their expensive, temperature-sensitive vaccines for safekeeping to a nearby health facility unaffected by the outage.
At LifeLong Medical Care in the East Bay, staff quickly moved vaccines and other temperature-sensitive medications to a nearby hospital for storage as their Oakland clinics lost power, and a clinician kept each location open in the darkness.
An estimated 3,000 people died due to loss of access to health care after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017. Dozens of community health centers across the territory lost power for weeks or months. Direct Relief has since been setting up self-sufficient micro-grids for the centers, combining solar power, battery power storage and back-up generators to keep them in operation during future outages.
Direct Relief itself has turned its own Santa Barbara headquarters and pharmaceutical warehouse into a self-sufficient power island/micro-grid that can run off the grid for months. With potential outages scheduled over the coming days in Southern California, Direct Relief is making its facilities available to the public to charge devices and small electronics while power is down.