Two weeks after Maria, doctors in Puerto Rico only now discovering problems in remote towns
JAYUYA, Puerto Rico— After Hurricane Maria’s landslides and flooding further isolated this mountain town, a volunteer doctor rushed to treat diabetic Brunilda Sovilaro, found on the floor of her home, covered in insects, unable to walk, disoriented and refusing to leave.
“You are sick. You are very hot,” Dr. Jorge Lopez of Orlando told the 50- year- old woman. “Your sugar needs to be controlled. You have chest pain. It could be a problem with your heart. You need to go to the hospital.”
Eventually, the Puerto Rico native who returned to the island from Florida to volunteer persuaded Sovilaro to board an ambulance to the nearby hospital.
“That lady was going to die if left there like that,” said Lopez, who also volunteered after Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss.,
where he said the landscape was much less of a challenge.
Two weeks after Maria struck Puerto Rico, hospitals are still struggling, and many like the one in Jayuya are without electricity and communications, reliant on generators and running short on vital medications. As of Friday, 8,349 displaced people were still in 132 shelters.
Officials are worried about public health risks from the frayed medical safety net on the island of 3.5 million, and are trying to address hospitals’ problems before they get worse.
Several Democrats in Congress spoke out this past week in Washington, calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to supply transportation to bring the ill, elderly and frail to the mainland.
“The reality of Puerto Rico doesn’t allow for these vulnerable people, sick people, to stay in Puerto Rico and get the treatment that they need,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, D- N. Y., calling the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said shoring up hospitals in mountain towns like Jayuya is a priority because they “present potential future challenges, public health emergencies.”
Rossello noted that the death toll of the hurricane had risen to 34, including 15 deaths indirectly caused after the storm. Local officials have said people died after the storm because of a lack of oxygen tanks, electricity to fuel life support and other problems.
Rossello said officials were also concerned about disease outbreaks, and have already seen some that were “localized,” including several cases of conjunctivitis at a shelter in the southern city of Ponce. Rossello said federal medical disaster management teams had been mobilized in Ponce “so we can control it,” and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent staff to check for the spread of mosquito- borne illnesses.
Rossello said his goal in shoring up hospitals ahead of outbreaks was “for us to be able to anticipate rather than just react.”
He said Friday that 25 of 68 hospitals had power, and more were expected to be connected soon. The government supplied fuel to 11 hospitals and more was delivered Friday, he said.
On Friday, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services activated its emergency drug assistance program in Puerto Rico that covers the cost of prescriptions, medical supplies, equipment and vaccines after a disaster. It wasn’t clear how soon that could help people in the island’s interior.