ItAs the Delta variant surged in August 2021 and hurricane danger loomed over the region, President Biden encouraged people to have their COVID-19 shots. This would allow them to stay indoors or evacuate to shelters. This week, as Hurricane Ian barreled towards Florida as a Category 4 storm, Biden’s remarks resurfaced, mischaracterized as advice for how to literally protect oneself from a hurricane.
But even though a vaccine (obviously) won’t prevent hurricane-related injuries, it’s still smart to take preventive health measures against COVID-19 in the face of a natural disaster like a hurricane. By protecting your health in advance, you can concentrate on the most immediate consequences of the storm. Vaccines are able to slow down spread of infectious diseases if there is a need for large shelters. Vaccines or boosters can also keep you out of hospital. This allows for better health care and the ability to treat any injuries that may occur during storms.
It will take time to see the effects on Florida’s health after Ian. However, very few residents of Florida had been given the new bivalent booster prior to the storm. The Weather Channel reports that more than 1200 patients had been evacuated from Fort Myers area hospitals as of Thursday afternoon.
Some research already exists about how recent hurricanes worsened people’s health during the pandemic. Patients can die from power outages caused by a hurricane. The hospitals in Mississippi and Louisiana were overflowing with patients suffering from COVID-19 when Hurricane Ida struck last year. Many were placed in ICUs. Damage from the storm and power outages forced evacuations from health care facilities in both states—a “precarious” task, given that COVID-19 patients rely on mechanical ventilation or oxygen, wrote the authors of one 2022 study published in the Lancet Regional Health—Americas. A second layer of problems was created by the need to prevent further spread.
This same study also found that Mississippi, Louisiana, and Mississippi both had some of the lowest levels of immunizations in America when Ida occurred. Low COVID-19 vaccination rates can lead to poor public health measures. Gathering in shelters is a way for people to protect themselves from the storms, but it also increases their risk of getting COVID-19. Many people used to be anxious about going into shelter because they were afraid of contracting the virus. This made them more vulnerable to the effects of the storm. In a survey conducted by more than 7,000 Florida residents in June 2020, 73% said that COVID-19 was less risky than being caught at shelters. Just over half strongly agreed they’d prefer to shelter in place.
According to the, neither the 2021 nor 2020 hurricane seasons saw significant COVID-19 increases after storms, Lancet report. It could also be because routine testing was not as thorough after storms. Both major hurricanes—Laura in 2020 and Ida in 2021—also made landfall at a time when case numbers were declining. Mask mandates and social distancing were also in place at the time; they’re not now.
Beyond the immediate impacts, living through a pandemic and a natural disaster at the same time can have long-term effects—and marginalized communities experience these disproportionately. A multi-year survey in Texas led by the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, in collaboration with Rice University and the Environmental Defense Fund, found that people who suffered the worst economic and mental-health impacts after Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017 were four times more likely to experience income loss during the pandemic, and five times more likely to suffer severe anxiety because of the pandemic, than people who weren’t as badly hit by the storm.
People affected by pandemic-era hurricanes—including Ian—are already starting from an unlucky baseline. There are many ways to help. Lancet study notes that people’s physical and mental health were already worsened by the pandemic when Ida hit and were “likely exacerbated by the devastating shock of Hurricane Ida.” Higher rates of mental health disorders, plus the potential for COVID-19 illness and life-altering hurricane destruction, make it obvious why shoring up preventive health measures during hurricane season is a good idea.
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