August 07, 2015
Hospitals across the Philadelphia region are preparing for the papal visit as if it is a three-day snowstorm.
That preparation requires staff increases, hospital sleep-ins and supply boosts, said Mark Ross, healthcare emergency preparedness manager for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP). But it also requires city planners to ensure pregnant women — and others needing urgent care — can access facilities despite massive road closures.
"We've done a lot of planning," Ross said of the region's hospitals. "We're really looking at this as instead of that 24-hour snowstorm that we're so used to in the Southeastern (Pennsylvania) region, it's a three-day snowstorm for us."
About 1.5 million people are expected to flood the Benjamin Franklin Parkway when Pope Francis holds a public Mass on Sunday, Sept. 27. A similar crowd is anticipated the preceding night, when he will speak at Independence Mall and appear at the Festival of Families event on the Parkway.
Those events have led the Secret Service to establish a "traffic box" engulfing all of Center City. Traffic mostly will be restricted to emergency vehicles, registered buses, bicycles and pedestrians.
That has prompted concerns among pregnant mothers and others who might need to reach a hospital quickly. Ross said pregnant women will be able to get through the restricted access.
"Working with our city partners, we will make every effort to get a female who is about to deliver to the facility of her choice with the doctor that she is familiar with," Ross said. "We will get them through the access issues to get there."
Ross declined to specify exactly how that will work because the city has not yet announced its emergency preparedness plans. He added that other patients, like the chronically ill, also will be able to move through security to get to their healthcare facility.
Hosts for Hospitals, a nonprofit agency providing volunteer housing for families visiting Philadelphia for specialized care, is seeking host homes in Center City or University City for at least 20 women due to give birth at CHOP during the papal visit.
"The patient-families who will be placed in those homes will be those of pregnant women, who due to the condition of the baby they're carrying absolutely must give birth at CHOP, or the baby would be in danger of being lost," Executive Director Mike Aichenbaum said.
The organization already has secured 50 host homes for other families staying in the Philadelphia region during the papal visit.
Despite challenging access, Ross said hospitals will not curtail non-emergency services. But he said scheduled surgeries and chemotherapy treatments are infrequently slated for weekends.
"We are working very closely with our patients," Ross said. "For their convenience, if it's going to be hard for them to get in and out, we may be looking at doing it Monday or Tuesday versus Friday and Saturday. Whatever is best for you, the patient, we're going to make sure that that occurs."
Hospitals also are preparing for any surge of patients that could arrive from the Parkway. Many of those attending the papal visit are expected to be older adults, which could impact geriatric services.
Due to the large crowd, hospital staffing is expected to be at a weekday or greater level. Healthcare professionals will be able to sleep at their facilities, just as they do during snowstorms. Supplies are being closely monitored and language translation services are being prepared to handle diverse populations.
First aid tents are expected to be scattered throughout the Parkway to provide assistance to pilgrims falling ill. Those requiring additional treatment will be transported to a medical facility by Philadelphia Fire and EMS officials.
"We've really proven that we can handle large-scale events," Ross said. "We're prepared for them. I feel really confident with the planning that has taken place in healthcare. We, like everyone else, will be impacted, but we will make sure this is a positive event, not only for the city, but for the region."
The city's emergency preparedness plans, which should provide more specific details, remain unannounced. Mayor Michael Nutter addressed road closures Wednesday during the first in a series of weekly papal visit updates.
The region's hospitals also have kept quiet on their specific plans. PhillyVoice reached out to seven hospitals, seeking comment on their preparation, but received limited responses.
Jefferson Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center — located directly across from Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, where Pope Francis is staying — directed media inquiries to HAP.
Priscilla Koutsouradis, communications director for the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council of HAP, said the region's healthcare system was praised for its handling of the Amtrak train derailment earlier this year. She also noted that hospitals stayed open throughout Hurricane Sandy and numerous snowstorms.
"Hospitals, year-in, year-out, have to be ready to keep operating in difficult weather events," Koutsouradis said. "We've practiced and planned for staying open and serving our communities under difficult and unusual circumstances all the time. It's just an ongoing part of our DNA. ... We like to call this papal visit a really big snowstorm – the biggest snowstorm ever."
Cooper University Hospital in Camden issued a statement saying its Incident Management Team has been working with regional planners for several months and noting the formation of a multidisciplinary task force to develop plans addressing issues related to the papal visit.
Representatives contacted at Hahnemann, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Health System and St. Joseph's Hospital did not respond to messages.
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Anyone willing to house a family in town for medical care can contact Hosts for Hospitals at 215-472-3801 or firstname.lastname@example.org.