Agencies Rush to Control Health Crisis

Emergency efforts in the wake of Katrina are in a desperate race against time. Hurricane-damaged states face growing health threats from polluted water and a lack of electricity.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And we turn now to NPR's Joanne Silberner, who has been following developments in the deteriorating health situation.

JOANNE SILBERNER reporting:

Some hospitals in the devastated area are trying to evacuate. Others are limping along with emergency generators; many are running out of fuel. In an interview with CNN earlier today, Dr. Ruth Berggren described the situation at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of CNN interview)

Dr. RUTH BERGGREN (Charity Hospital, New Orleans): We have no power. There was backup power for the first day or so, and we have no power now, which means no air conditioning, no lights. We are making rounds by flashlight. We have no ability to check laboratory values on patients. We can't use electrical devices to deliver intravenous medications.

SILBERNER: Berggren says all they can do is provide basic first aid.

(Soundbite of CNN interview)

Dr. BERGGREN: Nobody has a heart monitor, but for people who were ventilator-dependent, in many cases, the hospital staff have had to physically breathe for them using an Ambu bag.

SILBERNER: Which they squeeze several times a minute to pump air.

Berggren says four patients in the intensive care unit have been evacuated to other hospitals; there's still 20 to go. Two hundred and fifty other patients are waiting to be evacuated; she doesn't know when. Military helicopters are helping with medical evacuation throughout the region. A US Navy hospital ship is heading down from Baltimore. Thirty-nine medical teams, pulled together by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are arriving in the Gulf area, and so are tons of medical supplies, everything from ice to blood pressure monitors.

The public health emergency declared by Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt loosens some of the rules that hospitals and health-care facilities have to follow. For example, hospitals won't have to get approval from Medicare before moving a patient from one facility to another. The department has taken other steps, as well. Mike Leavitt.

Secretary MIKE LEAVITT (Department of Health and Human Services): We are also erecting a network of up to 40 medical shelters. They will have the capacity collectively of 10,000 beds and will be staffed by some 4,000 qualified medical personnel. The first of them is now in place and, as we speak, we are treating patients in the Baton Rouge area.

SILBERNER: There will be 10 more shelters up and running in the area in the next three days. People outside hospitals who need daily treatments--like insulin for diabetes or oxygen for emphysema--could be in real trouble if they can't get medication. Leavitt's worried about threats to healthy people, as well.

Sec. LEAVITT: We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that come could as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions.

SILBERNER: Teams are being sent in to work on sanitation, food safety and, also, mosquito abatement, a real concern with all the standing water in the hot and humid Gulf region. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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