Preparing for the Worst-case ScenarioPosted on by
Setting the Stage
Imagine this: Explosions across New York City target elementary schools. Hundreds of severely injured and traumatized children, teachers, and parents flood hospital emergency departments in the five boroughs. Municipal emergency medical services (EMS) are rushing to respond.
Fortunately this scenario wasn’t really happening – it was part of an exercise conducted on May 25, 2017. The exercise was designed to test the ability of the New York City (NYC) Healthcare System to respond to a massive surge of pediatric trauma patients, exceeding the usual resources of this large and complex healthcare system.
Identifying the Players
As a CDC Career Epidemiology Field Officer assigned to NYC, I worked with the experts in the Pediatric Disaster Coalition and the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). We designed an exercise that reflected the number of injured children who would need to go to the hospital and the type of injuries they might experience if a similar event really happened.
NYC has 62 acute care hospitals that participate in the 911 system. Of these, 16 are level 1 trauma centers designated by the NYC Department of Health (this includes three pediatric level 1 trauma centers and 4 burn centers). A total of 28 hospitals care for pediatric patients and have, during the past seven years with the assistance of the NYC Pediatric Disaster Coalition, developed pediatric-specific components of their overall disaster plans to prepare them to receive pediatric patients from an incident like the one invented for this exercise. All 28 hospitals participated in the exercise.
Hospitals who participated in the exercise were challenged to rapidly respond to more than 60 simulated patients with a range of injuries and conditions:
- a 7-year-old boy unresponsive after a traumatic injury to his head
- A toddler with burns to the face, chest, and abdomen
- A 12-year-old distraught after witnessing another child lose arms in an explosion
Hospitals had to assess the resources that were available to care for the patients, including
- What nursing and specialty staff could be made immediately available?
- What medications and equipment, including imaging equipment and burn supplies, were needed to care for the children?
- What communications and incident command processes would each hospital use to mobilize staff and other resources in the situation described in the exercise?
- Which patients needed to be transferred to specialty hospitals to receive care for their injuries?
Coordination between FDNY and hospitals was critical to the success of this exercise – it supported interfacility transfers for patients who required specialty care or to better match hospital resources with patient needs. During the exercise, I met with FDNY leadership from EMS and Office of Medical Affairs physicians, and leaders from NYC Emergency Management and the Health Department at the Fire Department’s Operations Center. There, we tested the communications between hospitals, FDNY, and a volunteer pediatric intensive care physician who was trained to assist FDNY’s Office of Medical Affairs to prioritize patients for urgent interfacility transfers.
This exercise revealed that 28 NYC hospitals were able to rapidly and dramatically increase their pediatric critical care capacity. It was the largest exercise NYC has done that was focused primarily on caring for injured children. During the exercise, these hospitals:
- More than doubled the number of beds in pediatric intensive care units (PICUs) and added 1,105 pediatric inpatient beds, so children could stay in the hospital for an extended period of time
- Opened 203 operating rooms that could treat children who needed surgery
During the exercise, we also identified some challenges, including
- More than half of the hospitals did not have enough supplies that could be used to treat critically injured children
- A limited number of pediatric specialists, including doctors who could perform brain surgery on children as well as ear, nose, and throat specialists
- Hospital resources (beds, supplies, and staff) would have been further strained if the disaster scenario had also included large numbers of adults
We were able to identify ways to improve each hospital’s process and further develop our citywide plans to respond to any emergency that strains our healthcare system. As a pediatrician and a parent of two young New Yorkers, I’m grateful that so many dedicated people are working together to make sure that city and hospital plans account for the unique needs of children in disasters.
The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene receives federal funds used to support state and local public health and healthcare system preparedness through the aligned Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) – Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) cooperative agreement. NYC used HPP funds to fund the NYC Pediatric Disaster Coalition to design and conduct the exercise, and coordinate participation of hospitals in the exercise.