Thousands of Floridians who need special care say they feel forgotten during hurricane evacuations

ORLANDO, Fla. — It is only July, and we’ve already seen five named storms this Hurricane Season.

As Elsa threatened Florida, those who care for the state’s most vulnerable say plans to care for medically fragile children and adults aren’t clear in every county.

Investigative Reporter Karla Ray learned only a few county-run shelters across the state cater to patients on ventilators or tracheotomy tubes, and she looked into the calls now to fill the gap.

The 30-plus pediatric patients under the care of Focus Forward Skilled Care can only stay at home thanks to constant supervision, and medical devices, including lifts, tracheotomy tubes, and ventilators.

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“If they didn’t have home health services, these children would be in Intensive Care Units,” RN Kat Sullivan said.

Sullivan runs the pediatric home health agency, and each year, state law requires her to make sure all of the patients under the care of her license have a plan in the event of a major storm or other emergency.

But we learned finding that care is different, county by county, making it tough for thousands of patients like hers to lock down plans.

“I think only 5 or 6 counties have enhanced medical facilities like we do,” Seminole County Emergency Manager Alan Harris said of the county’s enhanced special needs shelter, which has to be staffed by medically-trained personnel in addition to having special equipment.

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Harris says it comes down to resources.

“The enhanced special needs shelter requires respiratory therapists, individuals who know about vent and trach tubes, and how to fix those on the fly,” Harris said. “Those are keeping people alive.”

Though his county, along with Orange and Brevard County locally say they do have enhanced special needs shelters available to help patients who need this type of medical care in the event of a storm, Osceola, Sumter, Flagler and Lake Counties all point to partnerships with nursing homes or hospitals to fill the gap.

Harris says those resources are becoming strained, too.

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“Over the last few years, hospitals have expressed to us that they aren’t able to take the influx of vent and trach patients and other types of patients too that require lifts and things like that, so they’re looking back to local governments to try to help those individuals,” Harris said.

We checked with some of our major hospital systems.

A spokesperson for Nemours Children’s Hospital told WFTV it is not an open shelter during storm evacuations, but rather coordinates and partners with each county’s patient special needs registry for shelters offering pediatric care during severe weather.

Orlando Health officials told us through an email that since hospitals are not shelters, Orlando Health encourages community members to discuss medical needs with their physicians or care-givers, be aware of their specific municipality guidelines, and make appropriate plans well in advance of approaching inclement weather.

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AdventHealth officials told us they and other health care providers work closely with our county partners to ensure the needs of this group of residents are met. In certain rare circumstances when county shelters may be unable to accommodate, counties will coordinate with hospitals on a case-by-case basis as needs arise.

Sullivan worries until there is a statewide standard for patients like hers, county-by-county confusion could mean some will fall through the cracks.

“Florida is where hurricanes happen, we have to plan and prepare for hurricanes,” Sullivan said. “That there’s not planning sufficient enough to help these children is really a wake up call for Florida.”

A spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management told us she was researching this issue to see what efforts were being made at a state level.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.