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It’s Not Just the Lights. Outages Shut Off Medical Devices at Home

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People who rely on electricity at home to keep medications cool or to run medical devices are worried about impending power outages. (John Moore/Getty Images)

PG&E’s planned power outages are sparking panic among people with health conditions who rely on electricity to power medical devices at home — devices that help them stay comfortable, or stay alive.

Patients who need oxygen machines running nonstop to breathe began calling their nurses as soon as the outages were announced, asking what they should do.

“We’ve dealt with power outages before, but never to this extent,” said Emma Baron, a nurse and vice president of quality, education and compliance at Hospice East Bay. “This is not that the electricity is out for 10 hours or six hours. This is going to be days, five or six days.”

PG&E decided to start cutting power to 800,000 customers in California earlier this week to reduce risks of wildfires amid forecasts of windy, dry weather. A PG&E spokesperson said Thursday that 29,819 customers with medical needs would be affected by the outages. These are households enrolled in the utility’s medical baseline program, which offers lower energy rates for older and disabled people who need extra power to operate ventilators, dialysis machines or mechanized wheelchairs.

PG&E to Customers With Disabilities: You Need to Prepare

Utilities tell these customers to plan for power loss by purchasing backup generators. But there are other medically vulnerable people who are not part of the program, who do not get this warning and are not sure what to do.

One of the first things the nurses at Hospice East Bay did to help patients in their care was go shopping.

Nurses called their medical supplier to order backup oxygen tanks that can run without power. They were told supplies were already starting to run low because of increased demand related to the outages.

more PG&E shutoff coverage

Next, they went to Target to buy foam mattresses for patients with bed sores or skin conditions who usually rely on airflow mattresses that must be plugged in to stay inflated and keep air streaming continuously. Regular mattresses can be too hard and aggravate sensitive or infected skin.

“We bought the foam pads as a temporary measure,” Baron said, “because we're not able to get egg crate foam from the vendors we have. They’re backlogged now because of all the requests.”

Finally, nurses called all the families who have an electric bed at home that allows people to sit up, raise their feet or lower the whole bed to make it easier to get in and out of.

“We advised them that they need to put the bed in the most comfortable position for the patient, because once the electricity goes off, they’re not going to be able to reposition that bed for as many days as it’s off,” Baron said.


Hospitals and Outpatient Clinics Coordinate Care

Hospitals don’t anticipate any major interruptions to care because they have emergency generators that keep all critical systems running during an outage.

But some outpatient appointments and procedures may need to be rescheduled at affected Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health locations, which so far include Santa Rosa, Lakeport, Auburn and Jackson.

“We will communicate with members who are affected, by phone and text,” said Tom Hanenburg, chief operating officer for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Hospital officials echoed the recommendation for a generator for people who rely on medical devices at home, as well as rechargeable batteries to run CPAP machines that help people with sleep apnea breathe at night.

They also recommend that “refrigerated medications be moved to small coolers packed with ice or cooling bricks, but not cold enough to freeze the medication. A closed refrigerator can maintain its temperature for 2-3 hours.”

Besides the logistics of keeping life-sustaining devices running, nurses at Hospice East Bay are also working hard to keep patients calm. Nurses, social workers and spiritual advisors were told to fill up their gas tanks so they won’t miss any home visits.

“These are people who are frail, elderly and in the last six months of their lives,” Baron said. “So every day counts for them.”

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