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Update: St. David's, other hospitals struggle with loss of water pressure, heat

Tony Plohetski Luz Moreno-Lozano
Austin American-Statesman

Austin hospitals have suffered losses to critical operations — including water and heat — that prompted more than two dozen patients to be transferred to neighboring facilities and others to remain in what some described as near-dire conditions.

A compounding issue of low water pressure impacted in some facilities the ability for boilers to generate heat, as temperatures in hallways and patient rooms plummeted.

The issues appeared most acute at St. David's South Austin Medical Center. But other facilities had related issues.

"Out of caution, yesterday we transported approximately 30 patients who were either vulnerable or could easily be cared for at another facility," David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David's HealthCare, said in an email Thursday. "We continue to work with the City of Austin in an effort to resolve the water outage, but they have been unsuccessful in resolving the water system issue affecting service and water pressure to our hospital." 

On Wednesday, St. David's South Austin Medical Center reported a loss of water pressure and heat and said they were taking several steps to get water to the hospital. It said several other area hospitals were also facing the same issue. 

Ongoing issues with the city's water system have caused a loss of water pressure at St. David's Medical Center downtown. And water pressure is still an issue at Heart Hospital of Austin, officials said in an email Thursday. 

Huffstutler said that they have deployed water tank trucks onsite at three hospitals — St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, St. David’s Medical Center and Heart Hospital of Austin — to connect and pressurize their systems due to water outages and low pressure.

"While the duration of this issue remains unknown at this time, all St. David’s HealthCare facilities are prepared to handle the situation and have a sufficient supply of water to help ensure that we can continue to provide our patients with exceptional care," he said. 

St. David's has been able to maintain food, water and other supplies across the system even as the Austin area has been blanketed with snow and ice for nearly a week. All hospitals have also maintained power throughout the weather event, and have not had to go on emergency power generation, Huffstutler said. 

As of Thursday, officials said while four hospital campuses ― St. David’s Medical Center, St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, St. David’s North Austin Medical Center and Heart Hospital of Austin ― are located within the area of the City of Austin boil water notice, they have been able to and will continue to provide water for patients, staff and hospital operations.

Huffstutler said the hospital has plenty of water resources in terms of bottled water for use with patients and potable needs.

The water issue is also impacting "a number of other hospitals in the area," he said in a written statement Wednesday. 

"Because this is a state-wide emergency situation that is also impacting other hospitals within the Austin area, no one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients," the statement said.

Officials with Baylor Scott & White said many area hospitals have been experiencing water outages, but teams have continued to use safe alternate water sources until service is restored. Backup power sources have also been engaged at several facilities. 

Baylor Scott & White Emergency Medical Center-Cedar Park is temporarily closed due to a winter weather-related water leak, but officials said crews are working as quickly as possible to resolve the issue and safely reopen.

"At all other Baylor Scott & White medical centers in the Austin area, although we are rescheduling some non-urgent surgeries, patient care is continuing at this time thanks to our highly dedicated staff members who are monitoring and responding to challenges as they arise," a spokesperson with the medical group said.

They have and will continue to collaborate with other hospitals on transfer needs. 

Ascension Seton Southwest Hospital, in Southwest Austin, said Wednesday they are also facing intermittent issues with water pressure. The hospital is rescheduling elective surgeries to preserve bed capacity and personnel, according to a statement from Ascension Seton. 

The water in Austin:Citywide water boil notice issued

Ambulances line up outside of St. David's South Austin Medical Center in preparation to transport patients on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, hospital officials said some patients at the facility would be sent over to other hospitals in the area after the building began losing heat due to low water pressure.

"While extreme weather conditions have caused intermittent water issues at several Ascension Seton sites of care, facility teams are working quickly to resolve the issues," the statement said. "All Ascension Seton hospitals have emergency response plans in place to provide uninterrupted patient care, including access to backup generators for each care site."

Huffstutler said hospital officials are working with the city of Austin to address the issue, but they're already taking additional steps, including finding transportation to send home those people who can be discharged, giving out bottles of water to employees and others so that they can wash their hands, and canceling non-emergency procedures.

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St. David's South Austin Medical Center prepares to transport patients in Austin on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, hospital officials said some patients at the facility would be sent over to other hospitals in the area after the building began losing heat due to low water pressure.

Hospital staff are also trying to secure portable toilet facilities and are asking employees currently on shift to stay at the hospital. 

"I am personally directing every resource available within our healthcare system to find solutions to best care for and serve our patients during this challenging time," Huffstutler said. 

St. David's currently has about 300 patients.

Russell Brown walks through the snow after being discharged from St. David’s South Austin Medical Center on Thursday afternoon.

American-Statesman staff writer Laura Morales contributed to this report. 

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