Health crisis in Puerto Rico: Few hospitals have power or fuel, but public health officials fear the worst is yet to come

Hurricane Maria
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Kenneth Sturrock, the federal health coordinator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says that the two main priorities for Puerto Rico are securing more fuel for generators and clean water for patient care. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti via Newscred)

Only 11 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals have power or fuel, leaving the few hospitals that are open to handle a surge of injured patients and those who need care for chronic conditions. And health officials are bracing for a second wave of illness as outbreaks of disease are likely due to the spread of mosquitoes from still water left in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The health situation in the U.S. territory is dire. Kenneth Sturrock, the federal health coordinator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the Wall Street Journal that the two main priorities are securing more fuel for generators and clean water for patient care. HHS has more than 300 personnel on the islands and has additional teams of medical professionals available if needed, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

RELATED: Damage from Hurricane Maria pushes medical services in Puerto Rico to the brink

HHS reports that it has evacuated more than 150 dialysis patients and more than 130 critical care patients from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland, but it’s been difficult for hospitals on the island to care for vulnerable patients without power and running water.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told CBS News that two people on life support died this week because their hospital ran out of fuel.

"It's life or death," Cruz said. "Every moment we spend planning in a meeting or every moment we spend just not getting the help we're supposed to get, people are starting to die. This is not painting a picture. This is just the reality that we live in, the crude aftermath of a storm, a hurricane, that has left us technically paralyzed."

RELATED: Confronting the public health aftermath of Hurricane Irma

The healthcare situation, already fragile due to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis prior to the hurricane, is critical because it could be months before electricity is restored in some areas, The Washington Post reports. And with many bodies of standing water, public health experts fear there will soon be outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease.  

Meanwhile, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., said the agency is working to address the potential for shortages of critical lifesaving and life-sustaining drugs needed by patients on and off the island.

“This is a catastrophic event unlike many the United States has faced,” he said. “At the FDA we are pushing beyond our normal processes to support the relief efforts in Puerto Rico—whether it’s working to prevent shortages of lifesaving therapeutics, helping to coordinate plane landing rights between DHS and pharmaceutical companies, ensuring ample blood supply or helping facilitate access to resources on the ground that our fellow citizens will need in their recovery efforts.”

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