The Countdown to the Eclipse is on and Health Care Providers are Ready

(TNS) – Hospitals and emergency management agencies are gearing up for Monday’s solar eclipse, an event that is expected to draw thousands of visitors to the region and could strain health care resources.

Some area hospital systems said they are activating their emergency response plans, increasing staff including eye experts, opening command centers to closely monitor the region’s health needs and preparing alternate lines of communication if cell towers are flooded with users.

For the past month, agencies and health providers have been working together to make sure they’re prepared to respond to any situation that may arise.

“Everybody is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Nick Gragnani, director of St. Louis Area Regional Response System, a regional group that coordinates planning and communication for large-scale events and disasters.

Because of the amount of people expected to come into the region, Creve Coeur-based SSM Health is going to open two command centers Friday through Monday. SSM operates a total of eight hospitals throughout the region.

The command centers will be equipped with televisions to watch for possible incidents, and computers loaded with software that can keep a pulse on how many patients are at each hospital and why patients are being admitted. Radios will be set up so leaders like Helen Sandkuhl, who’s in charge of emergency response situations at SLU Hospital, can communicate with ambulances and fire districts.

SLU hospital has already doubled staff in some areas of the hospital going into the weekend and is prepared to increase staff by as much as 25 percent.

Eclipse watchers are expected to head to areas like Jefferson and Franklin counties and points farther south that will experience a total solar eclipse for the longest period of time compared with other areas of the region.

Mark Diedrich, director of the St. Louis County Office of Emergency Management, said the most important task his office will be doing Monday is shifting resources to where the crowds are.

He said there are about 20 sites putting on events to watch the eclipse, which in total are expected to draw a total of 10,000 attendees. If one site attracts more participants than expected, then Diedrich may need to shift medical personnel, water or other resources to that area.

But he’s most worried about what happens when the event is over.

“Think about Busch Stadium and Scottrade being full and letting out at the same time, but imagine that in various spots around the county,” Diedrich said of the post-eclipse traffic.

Jeff Hamilton, who oversees emergency response for Chesterfield-based Mercy, is also concerned about traffic.

“Traffic congestion will probably be the main issue. Police envision traffic issues similar to winter storms with icing during rush hour.”

St. Anthony’s Medical Center in south St. Louis County, also owned by Mercy, said they’re preparing for car accidents as other agencies warn of increased traffic. They’ll also have ophthalmologists on call in case there are eye-related incidents.

It’s always dangerous to look at the sun, but officials with NASA said nothing about the solar eclipse makes looking at the sun more dangerous than normal. However, during an eclipse more individuals are likely looking at the sun for longer periods and experts are encouraging eclipse watchers to wear protective glasses.

The last total solar eclipse in the St. Louis area was in 1442.

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