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Nearly 700 Elderly Nursing Home Residents May Have Died Because of Hurricane Irma, New Study Says

By Jan Wesner Childs

October 13, 2020

At a Glance

  • Irma hit Florida in September 2017.
  • The official death toll reports 14 nursing home residents died due to lack of air conditioning.
  • A new study concludes that hundreds more deaths could be connected to the storm.
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The official death toll from 2017's Hurricane Irma reports 14 Florida nursing home patients died when the facility where they lived in Broward County lost power and air conditioning.

The story made national headlines, outraged family members and advocates for the elderly, and led to changes in state law.

But a new study shows that nearly 700 more frail nursing home residents died in the months following Irma, and their deaths may be connected to the storm.

The study from researchers at the University of South Florida and Brown University was published last week by the American Medical Association.

“And what it says is nursing homes need to really pay attention to these people when they’re in the process of reacting to a hurricane,” study co-author Lindsay Peterson, a research assistant professor of aging studies at USF, told the Tampa Bay Times.

(MORE: Elderly, Low-Income Louisiana Residents Left to Fend for Themselves After Hurricane Laura, Rescue Group Says)

Peterson and her fellow researchers analyzed the health outcomes of 62,000 residents in more than 600 Florida nursing homes after Irma.

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They found that there were more than 262 more nursing home deaths within 30 days after the storm compared to the same time period in 2015, when Florida was not hit by a hurricane. At 90 days out, the number jumped by another 433.

“A great deal has been done to increase the safety of long-term care residents during disasters,” Kathryn Hyer, another study author and professor of aging studies at USF, said in a news release. “But these results show us that work must continue to identify those who are most at risk and to understand the real toll of a disaster.”

HOLLYWOOD, FL - SEPTEMBER 13:  City officials and medical staff  address the media outside of a rehabilitation center in the city where six patients were found dead September 13, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. The deaths may be due to to the home's loss of air conditioning after Hurricane Irma struck on September 10, according to published reports.   (Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images)
City officials and medical staff address the media outside of a rehabilitation center in Hollywood, Florida, where 14 patients died when Hurricane Irma knocked out power in September 2017. A new study says the storm may have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of other nursing home residents in the state.
(Angel Valentin/Getty Images)

About two-thirds of the individuals studied had been in a nursing home for at least three months, meaning they were generally more likely to be frail and have chronic conditions such as dementia and heart disease.

"Vital statistics death data are used to evaluate direct and indirect deaths attributed to a hurricane," Peterson said. "The problem is they may not include all deaths resulting from the worsening of existing medical conditions."

She added that the deaths are likely to be blamed on natural causes, rather than health issues that were exacerbated by the hurricane.

The study echoed previous research that's shown over and over again that the elderly and medically fragile among the most vulnerable to hurricanes and other disasters.

“This is an extremely vulnerable population, and nursing homes and other facilities need to do a better job of hardening their facilities to protect our loved ones,” Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, a nonprofit that advocates for patients at long-term care facilities, told the Times.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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