On Monday, more than 50,000 people will descend on Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Four days later, they’ll flock to Philadelphia for the Democratic one. In the heat of a summer punctured by violence, medical officials in each city are bracing for tragedy.
In Cleveland, the chief medical officers of the four biggest hospitals have been working together for a year to plan—stockpiling supplies, doubling up on surgeons, and visualizing the worst-case scenarios should something go wrong. Philadelphia medical officials, while seemingly less concerned, are equally aware that increased medical personnel and supplies will be needed.
Their hope is that this will translate into nothing more than an influx of patients with minor things like dehydration and over-consumption of alcohol. But given the current national landscape, preparing for mass causalities isn’t just safe—it’s necessary.
In the first six months of 2016 alone, 200 Americans were killed in mass shootings, 187 black people fatally shot by police, dozens injured during protests, and five police officers shot during an otherwise peaceful march. Worldwide, there have been multiple large-scale terrorist attacks and a continued spike in cases of Zika virus, which is linked to severe birth defects.
Combined with one of the most heated presidential elections in recent memory, centering on two nominees with robust opposition groups that have turned to violence more than once—the worst case scenario isn’t that tough to imagine.
Dr. Robert Wyllie, Chief of Medical Operations at the Cleveland Clinic, said the Secret Service came to meet with him and three other medical chiefs from the country's biggest hospitals last fall. Together, they’ve crafted close to 200 emergency plans from “every health center and hospital in the city,” outlining how they might shift resources and personnel in the event of a crisis.
The plans are intricate, including a six-inch binder with the cell phone and beeper numbers for every medical employee in the area, a stockpile of medications, linens, and food supplies (enough to last four days), and emergency surgeons ready to cover 96 hours of procedures.
“We’ve had some tabletop exercises with 80-150 people going through situations where we discuss what would happen if there was mass exposure to bacteria,” Wyllie said. “A variety of other situations too—live simulated exercises where volunteers come in with tags saying ‘I’ve been injured here,’ and we figure out what to do.”
Wyllie is worried about everything from a violent protest that calls for pepper spray to a mass causality event. “You don’t want to think about a Brussels or a Boston,” he said. “But Boston made it a little less tragic because of how prepared the hospitals were. They really did a great job responding to that tragedy.” He wants to be ready to do the same.
Cleveland authorities will have eight teams of emergency medical personnel (four times the usual amount) at the Quicken Loans Arena. “We've considered biologic attacks, bomb blasts, mass shootings, and even radiation exposure,” said Wyllie. “I think we’re pretty well prepared.”
Philadelphia, perhaps owing to the fact that it’s hosting Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump, whose rallies have a demonstrated history of violence, is less concerned. Hospitals, emergency rooms, and acute trauma centers are beginning to finalize plans, none that seem as detailed Cleveland's.
Another reason, perhaps, is that the City of Brotherly Love has had practice. Last year’s papal visit drew close to two million spectators, which put a huge strain on hospitals. The Democratic National Convention, which will take place from July 25-28 at the Wells Fargo Center, will build on the emergency planning capabilities developed for that visit, according to Mark Ross, Head of Emergency Preparedness for the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania.
Ross has served as the representative for the regional hospitals during emergency preparation meetings for the DNC, which began at the end of last year. He told The Daily Beast that while he doesn’t predict Philadelphia will see the same “impact on access to health care” as the Pope's visit last year, the 50-plus hospitals in the region, along with other agencies, have all been preparing.
When it comes to planning for the DNC, it’s not only the 50,000 attendees and media that the emergency preparedness teams are concerned with, but the “free speech” demonstrations that are likely to ensue. “Health care has been consistently involved in these planning efforts since day one,” Ross said, adding that they will continue to be involved during the event itself.
Not every hospital is revamping its plans. Joey McCool Ryan, Senior Public Relations Specialist for The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told The Daily Beast that it will be “operating as normal” during the convention. Ross said that “special provisions to have staff on call” will be made, in order to ensure safety for both residents and visitors during the event.
Dr. Patrick J. Brennan, Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, told The Daily Beast that the University of Pennsylvania and affiliated hospitals have “the ability to pull and call lists to bring people” in order to “staff up” in the event of an emergency. And while they aren’t stocking up on medications, they have the ability to get supplies quickly.
Ultimately, Ross explained, Philadelphia—a city of 1.5 million people—is “used to big events” like this one. “We plan for the worst, we hope for the best,” he said. “In this city we have always seen the best response to any and all events that have happened, and I give credit to those partnerships.”
Wyllie and the other medical professionals prepping for the RNC in Cleveland share that sentiment. “We're all just crossing our fingers,” said Wyllie, “Hoping that we have a lot of preparations that we don’t need to use.” With federal officials declaring no “credible threat” to the RNC as of now, chances are good he might not have to.