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Tropical storms and hurricanes won’t stop just because there’s a pandemic. Getty Images
  • As if COVID-19 wasn’t enough, the United States will still face many natural disasters this year, along with the regular seasonal flu.
  • Health officials advise people to prepare early in case they need to evacuate due to a major natural disaster.
  • Hotels and motels are a safer option than big convention centers for evacuation shelters.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated in the United States, state and county emergency management agencies are taking extra precautions to reduce coronavirus risks faced by people evacuating their homes because of hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters.

Likewise, physicians and hospitals — who treat millions of Americans for seasonal influenza each year — will have to face the prospect that each cough or sniffle could be something much more than the flu.

The coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when a person with the virus talks, sneezes, or coughs.

This makes it more challenging to set up shelters for people displaced by a natural disaster.

“Conventional hurricane evacuation shelters — such as a convention center — are high-risk locations for spreading COVID-19 because these shelters typically have hundreds and sometimes thousands of people,” said Sarah E. DeYoung, PhD, an assistant professor in sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.

In order to minimize these risks, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released guidelines which recommend that state and local disaster agencies find shelter locations where people and families can be more isolated, such as in hotels, motels, or university dorms.

“Hotels provide a safer environment for families and individuals who have been evacuated, and we can provide services to them directly in their hotel room,” said Chad Carter, an American Red Cross spokesperson.

If local public health officials ask the American Red Cross to help set up a traditional emergency shelter, the organization will do so, said Carter. But they’ll put in place enhanced safety precautions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

This includes following the guidance of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local public health units, such as:

  • Screening people for symptoms of COVID-19 and taking their temperature, both before they enter a shelter and ongoing.
  • Requiring shelter staff and residents to wear a cloth face covering at all times, except when eating or showering. Children under 2 years old, people with difficulty breathing, and those who can’t remove the mask themselves would be exempt.
  • Increasing the space between cots so physical distancing can be maintained.
  • Using enhanced cleaning and disinfecting techniques to eliminate the virus from surfaces, especially high-touch surfaces such as light switches and doorknobs.
  • Having supplies of hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks for use by shelter staff and residents.

Lisa Rodriguez-Presley, external affairs supervisor for the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency said shelters should have separate spaces where people who have been exposed to the virus can be isolated from others. This can help slow the spread of the virus.

DeYoung said states should also be taking steps to protect vulnerable populations, such as Black Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Native Americans.

These groups have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including facing greater rates of hospitalizations and deaths.

“This is due to racism and discrimination in healthcare and lack of access to adequate healthcare,” DeYoung said.

Many people in these groups are also hit hard by natural disasters. And they may be facing eviction and homelessness due to COVID-19-related job losses, said DeYoung.

She said states should consider extending rent support for families, enforcing renter’s rights during disasters, and providing workplace protections for those at high risk of COVID-19. This would help those most at risk from both the coronavirus and natural disasters.

Rodriguez-Presley said that while some people may be concerned about COVID-19 risk in a shelter, they shouldn’t try to ride out a hurricane at home if it’s not safe.

“There are steps that you can take to help mitigate your risk of coronavirus. There are steps that shelters are taking to help mitigate people’s risk, as well,” she said. “So follow the directions of your local [emergency management agency], and if they say to evacuate, then you should evacuate.”

If you don’t want to stay in a shelter when you evacuate, you may want to consider staying with family or friends, or finding your own hotel room. But Rodriguez-Presley said you’ll need to make those plans well in advance.

You’ll also need to think about whether you’re putting your hosts at risk of the virus by visiting, which is especially important if they’re at high risk of severe COVID-19.

“It’s really important that you think about the health and safety of your family, and of those that you’re going to visit, to see if that is still the best option for you,” said Carter.

Also, if you have pets, you’ll need to think about whether your friends or family will be able to accommodate them as well.

There are other steps you can take to protect yourself from COVID-19 during a natural disaster.

“We encourage everyone to have a ‘ready kit,’ something that’s already put together that has provisions for yourself, your family, and your pets,” said Rodriguez-Presley. “So start thinking about some of those supplies [related to coronavirus] that you might want to have and add those to your ready kit.”

This includes adding things such as disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, cloth face coverings, and gloves.

Carter encourages people to start early when updating their kits — especially if they’ve dipped into their supplies during stay-at-home orders — because it can take longer to obtain supplies in areas heavily affected by COVID-19 or if you’re ordering online.

The Red Cross also has apps that help you prepare for different natural disasters, including building your ready kit and finding shelter locations.

As we’ve already seen, COVID-19 and seasonal flu share some symptoms, but the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has already caused more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than even the worst flu season.

As of July 14, there have been nearly 3.4 million COVID-19 cases in the United States, with over 136,000 reported deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center, which tracks the virus worldwide.

Between 2013 and 2019, estimated deaths in the United States from the seasonal flu ranged from 23,000 to 61,000 per year.

Physicians are already bracing themselves for a fall and winter in which COVID-19 overlaps with other circulating respiratory viruses.

“You will have this wicked soup of the common cold, seasonal influenza, and COVID-19, which will all be present in our community at the same time,” said Dr. Gary L. LeRoy, a family physician in Dayton, Ohio, and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Because these viruses can cause similar symptoms, “it’s going to be very difficult to sort out what’s really going on with some of these individuals,” he added.

He said there’s no way to know, based on symptoms, if someone has COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.

Physicians can ask questions about a person’s possible exposure to the coronavirus, such as travel or close contact with someone with COVID-19. But even these questions won’t provide a definitive diagnosis.

The only way to know for certain if someone has COVID-19 is with a test, which may require people to visit another location.

Physicians’ offices that are open have in place special procedures to protect patients and staff from the virus, many of which are outlined on the AAFP’s website, such as:

  • physical distancing among both staff and patients
  • screening patients upon arrival for respiratory symptoms and checking their temperature
  • keeping common areas closed, if possible
  • use of personal protective equipment, including asking all patients to wear masks even if they’re not coming in with a respiratory illness
  • regular handwashing
  • enhanced cleaning and disinfectant procedures

These steps are what LeRoy calls “universal precautions” because they will protect staff and patients not just from the coronavirus, but also from the common cold and seasonal flu.

“The likelihood that I will get a respiratory virus that causes the common cold have been diminished precipitously, because of the fact that I’m taking all these precautions this year,” said LeRoy.

There are some indications that steps taken to contain the coronavirus earlier in the spring — stay-at-home orders, physical distancing, and handwashing — also helped slow the spread of the seasonal flu.

Another important step physicians will take this year is encouraging patients to get vaccinated against the seasonal flu, something they do every year. This can help reduce the number of people showing up at doctors’ offices with respiratory symptoms.

“It is critically important that people get their flu shot this season when they come available,” said LeRoy.

He also reminds physicians that in a COVID-19 world, taking care of patients is not business as usual anymore.

“We have to stop thinking of the world as it existed in 2019,” he said. “The world is not the same anymore.”