SAN JUAN— The horror stories about Puerto Rico’s health care crisis in the wake of Hurricane Maria read like pages torn from post-apocalyptic fiction.
There are reports of exhausted doctors performing surgeries by flashlight and patients going without life-saving drugs as medicines spoil in disconnected refrigerators. There are stories of patients cut off from hospitals and hospitals cut off from the outside world.
There are reports of people drinking contaminated water and breathing dangerous bacteria from black mold. As many as seven people have died from Leptospirosis, and there are already another 76 known cases, according to the mayor of San Juan.
There are also serious concerns about misinformation and possible attempts to downplay the official death toll, currently stalled at 51. Government health officials say they authorized the cremation of 911 Puerto Ricans who reportedly died “of natural causes” in the first month after the storm, yet were not physically examined by a medical examiner to determine whether those deaths were related to the hurricane, according to BuzzFeed News. That raises the prospect that the death toll could be measured in the hundreds, not the dozens.
The situation is dire and could worsen as vulnerable populations continue to face serious risk of water-borne illness, epidemics, and outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases. “The people over here in Puerto Rico are dying. We have a health care crisis right now,” said National Nurses United vice president Cathy Kennedy after the group returned from a two-week trip to the island.
After weeks of ghastly headlines, the Puerto Rican government is trying to flip the script. With help from the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló wants people to know the island’s health care system is “back on line.”
The U.S. hospital ship, which was criticized for being underutilized as it anchored off various parts of the island for the first few weeks after the storm, finally docked in San Juan on Saturday to establish closer contact with patients. It was greeted by long lines of people who waited for hours under tents on a pier normally used for cruise ships.
The beds on the hospital ship are now more than 60% occupied, and its medical staff attended to 700 people over the weekend, according ship medics. The first day alone, medical staff provided triage treatment to 371 patients, roughly two-thirds of whom were treated in trailers and released right away, while 145 patients were admitted to the ship for more serious care.
“This is very positive news,” Gov. Rosselló said on Sunday, after visiting the ship and meeting with patients. “People have direct access to the ship now without bureaucracy or limitations.”
Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Health Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado says the USNS Comfort is playing an important support role as the health system comes back to life after flatlining during the storm. He says grid power has been restored to 56 of 69 hospitals across the country, while the others have been equipped with generators. Only two hospitals remain entirely out of service due to storm damage, Rodriguez said.