The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort was sent to Puerto Rico to assist with relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Weeks later, almost all of its beds are empty and patients in dire need on the island are unable to reach the ship:
Sammy Rolon is living in a makeshift clinic set up at a school. He has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and is bedridden. He’s waiting for surgery that was scheduled before Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico. Now, he can’t even get the oxygen he needs.
There is help available for the 18-year-old — right offshore. A floating state-of-the-art hospital, the USNS Comfort, could provide critical care, his doctor says. But nobody knows how to get him there. And Sammy is not alone.
Clinics that are overwhelmed with patients and staff say they don’t even know how to begin sending cases to the ship. Doctors say there’s a rumor that patients have to be admitted to a central hospital before they can be transferred to the Comfort. Only 33 of the 250 beds on the Comfort — 13% — are being used, nearly two weeks after the ship arrived.
It does the people of Puerto Rico no good to have a hospital ship offshore if hundreds of people that could benefit from it can’t receive treatment on it. There are evidently some serious failures of communication and/or coordination between the military and federal and local authorities that need to be fixed right away. Anything that can alleviate the burden on the island’s strained health care system will obviously be an important improvement over the current situation.
However, that will only begin to address the island’s larger health crisis:
More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, the situation remains bleak and dangerous for the infirm and the elderly. The island is running low on medicine. Many hospitals aren’t fully operational, and with the electrical grid practically wiped out, many are still running with backup generators.
Puerto Rico’s health care facilities clearly need more fuel and medicine than they are receiving, and those are shortfalls that the government and aid organizations should be able to make up. Even allowing for the difficulties in distribution, shortages of basic supplies should not be allowed to happen this many weeks after the storm.
An added danger is that accumulating trash, debris, and dead bodies on the streets are creating conditions for a major public health disaster:
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing at least 44 people, Jose Vargas Vidot surveyed street after street lined with mounds of soaking garbage mixed with mud, trees and sometimes dead animals.
You couldn’t make a better breeding ground for rats, roaches and all sorts of nasty diseases, the public health volunteer said. And every day the fetid piles stay there, the risk of an epidemic grows.
“We’re already building the next disaster,” he said.
When we combine this with the contamination of water sources and the lack of potable water for hundreds of thousands of people that I discussed yesterday, we have the makings of a very serious crisis. Puerto Rico still needs a great deal more assistance, and it will need that assistance for a long time to come.