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Disaster Planning in Nursing Homes: The Questions to Ask Your Loved One’s Facility

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This guide is part of our Older and Overlooked series on the danger wildfires pose to California's older population, especially during COVID-19.

Speaker 1: 00:00 This week we're reporting on the startling number of elder care homes in places across California. At heightened risk of wildfire, a KQBD investigation found this has more than one third of all these facilities in the state. When elder care homes aren't ready for a disaster. Local first responders get the call for help, but they're already overburdened, especially during the coronavirus pandemic here. We're the next in our series, older and overlooked our KQBD science reporters, Danielle Venton and Molly Peterson. It was a winner

Speaker 2: 00:30 Any day in August, two years ago, a CHP officer had died that morning, near a freeway in Fairfield. Lisa Romero went to see the makeshift Memorial on a Hill behind it. She noticed a ribbon of orange flame Romero knew older. People lived over that way with nothing between them and the fire. She went to offer help.

Speaker 3: 00:49 I saw a man, he looked a little panicked. He was outside.

Speaker 2: 00:53 Dan worked at loving place, a small assisted living facility on Hancock drive.

Speaker 3: 00:57 And he told me, he said, I have a lot of residents inside. I only, you know, I have my car. I'm going to have to get them in. Some of them are not ambulatory.

Speaker 2: 01:06 Marrow is a nurse. She knew what that meant. So she went inside the care home to help bring people out.

Speaker 3: 01:12 Then we started to gather their belongings. And then I remember one lady wanted to call a family member. So I helped her call a family member.

Speaker 2: 01:19 The fire kept coming closer. Romero says eventually she flagged down police and asked them to call nine one one.

Speaker 3: 01:25 And everybody worked together. The police, the good Samaritan, the person that was running the home, I believe we sent two ambulances, right?

Speaker 2: 01:33 Jimmy Pearson is the president of medic ambulance.

Speaker 3: 01:36 And then they need it for when we got there, but it was too late.

Speaker 2: 01:39 Pearson's Cruz Romero and others got the four residents out to save shelter

Speaker 3: 01:45 Right up to across the street from that house easily could have brought that up

Speaker 2: 01:48 In the end. Romero was there for hours. So it was another volunteer. So were the police, it was exhausting

Speaker 3: 01:55 Feeling the heat. It was unbearable. Like you could barely even open your eyes. It was so strong and I've never been that close to a fire

Speaker 2: 02:02 After a complaint about that evacuation state inspectors verify that loving place had a plan, but they concluded that the staffer on duty wasn't adequately trained and wasn't able to follow the plan. When the emergency came. [inaudible] analysis found that loving place is one of more than 150 care facilities at heightened risk for wildfire in Solano County. This year with the Corona virus still spreading Pearson says places like that should be prepared

Speaker 3: 02:29 Talking about a second surge or second wave. And they sort of massive fire, which is going to happen. You're living in fire world and you know, pandemic world.

Speaker 2: 02:40 The pandemic has reached skilled nursing facilities in fire prone areas from the Sierra foothills to the suburban fringe. More than half of those facilities have reported coronavirus outbreaks. One way to protect older and disabled people in care homes is to demand more scrutiny for their emergency plans. Kathy hire a gerontologist. The university of South Florida says climate driven storms have forced Florida to do just that.

Speaker 3: 03:05 There's a real effort to make sure that that communication occurs so that people can talk to each other during a local emergency ask for help, ask for supplies, tell them that they need to evacuate or whatever

Speaker 2: 03:19 Needs to happen. And for assisted living in particular hires, co-researcher Lindsay Peterson points out that States bear primary responsibility.

Speaker 3: 03:27 There is no federal mechanism to regulate assisted living. If it's going to happen, it will only happen on the state or local.

Speaker 2: 03:36 And Kathy higher says Florida law requires longterm care homes to get approval for disaster plans from emergency officials and regulators to check up on them. And if they don't find it,

Speaker 3: 03:46 They find either the assisted living or the nursing home for not

Speaker 2: 03:50 Having that plan. But in California, we don't do that when loving place got in trouble for failing to carry out an emergency plan or train its staff. Regulators couldn't even issue fines for those deficiencies. No law requires the state office of emergency services or County emergency managers to look at the plans, care homes make for wildfires or any other threats. My colleague Danielle Venton has been looking into how California response to disasters. She picks up the story. Callow ESS vans. Taylor says evacuations are always risky for disabled and older people. During the pandemic. It's especially important for facilities to have watertight plans.

Speaker 3: 04:30 We have to have it in our minds, but we're pulling people together and shoving them off in a hurry to one location might present an equal way or life threatening

Speaker 2: 04:40 Taylor's job is to make sure that emergency response plans include people who might otherwise be overlooked because of the pandemic. He says Calloway, yes. Now recommends more spacing among evacuees at shelters and even renting trailers and hotel rooms to keep people separate, but he can only offer guidance, not rules about planning for evacuations, a blueprint, but state policy is that locals are responsible. The County officials

Speaker 3: 05:08 Do what it is. They believe that the interest of the individuals from that community, okay, what's the money look like for these things

Speaker 2: 05:15 For godly is the emergency manager for Sonoma County. He says the state expects more from disaster response than ever before. And so does it

Speaker 3: 05:23 20 years ago, if you sat on an air horn and you put a pillow on a cot in the gym, do you recover? That was the entire scope of your service set. In recently

Speaker 2: 05:33 Years, state officials have spoken more about emergency preparedness for vulnerable populations. KQBD has found that 77% of Sonoma County care homes are in areas at heightened risk for fire. And when that wildfire breaks out and their plans are inadequate, the County has to divert from its other work mid disaster to step in, but godly doesn't have the authority to require better planning. So our

Speaker 3: 05:58 Relationship is one of certainly encouraging these facilities to step into that role, that responsibility more fully develop realistic emergency plans, not just hypotheticals it's sitting in a binder on the nurses.

Speaker 2: 06:13 Godly says the county's role is to warn vulnerable people when they need to get out of the way Sonoma was criticized for inadequate warnings. During the 2017 wildfires last year, the County began placing thousands of weather radios in schools and care homes where they can broadcast warnings and alerts some light up to warm. The heart of hearing others use attachments to shake the bed of a sleeping person alerts also go out through text messages, emails, wireless, emergency alerts, and high, low sirens that signal evacuations and godly says in pandemic times work like this and extra staff time is costing more money. How much more as a guest godly is now trying to get 10 shelters ready for any disaster to allow for distancing where usually he would just need one.

Speaker 3: 07:07 Okay. That's 10 times the amount of work and logistics, staffing levels and training for staffing. So it's a significant cost. It's not just buying two bottles of hand sanitizer and Paul A. Good,

Speaker 2: 07:18 And he worries that despite his warnings and preparations a nine 11 call to County services is still the backup plan for underprepared facilities.

Speaker 3: 07:28 Technology is great, but it does not reel a bed out of a home into a appropriate ambulance

Speaker 2: 07:34 What's needed. He says is a longterm shift Californians and their leaders need to plan for disasters as a way of life. Not a last minute scramble even if right now. And partly because of the pandemic, most local governments don't have the authority or funds to do that. I'm Danielle Venton and I'm Molly Peterson. KQBD news, KQ, ATS, data journalists, Lisa pickoff white also reported this story tomorrow. How to protect elders who live independently when it comes to an emergency

Speaker 3: 08:14 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.