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Medical teams say they were ready for Katrina

September 6, 2005

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal health officials disputed
criticisms on Tuesday that the government was not prepared to
deal with disaster, saying their agencies at least were ready.

Health experts on the ground also said they had not been
caught by surprise, noting that some teams arrived a day before
Katrina hit the Gulf coast and that preparations began a week
in advance. Field hospitals have been installed across the
Southeast and have already processed thousands of patients.

And now they are stepping up efforts not only to provide
for the immediate needs of refugees, but to fill in the gap for
health systems destroyed in the storm or overwhelmed by
thousands of evacuees.

“I think it is really important to remember that when this
hurricane was coming, we actually didn’t know where it was
going to go,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in a
telephone briefing.

“I think hospitals did what they could to be prepared but I
think it is difficult to prepare for something of this scope
and, particularly in New Orleans, the flooding.”

And then it was difficult to get into the city itself, in
part because of the flooding and in part because of shooting
and looting, said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike
Leavitt.

“It was more difficult to establish a foothold at the
convention center and the Superdome because of the security
issues that been widely reported,” he said. “People received
remarkable care, under the circumstances.”

But now even these centers are up and running, said
Surgeon-General Dr. Richard Carmona.

“When we walked through (Monday) we saw a large,
metropolitan hospital … and patients not only receiving care
but receiving the social services that they needed,” Carmona
said.

Leavitt said 1,000 hospital beds had been set up in the New
Orleans area and 8,000 professionally qualified health-care
volunteers had signed up on HHS’s tollfree telephone line.

WHEN TO DECLARE THE CITY SAFE?

HHS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the CDC, the
Department of Energy and the Department of Defense have set up
a joint task force in New Orleans, Leavitt said.

“The task is to monitor public health in the New Orleans
area and to make judgments on when New Orleans is safe to
reinhabit,” Leavitt said.

The main concerns are water-borne disease such a E. coli
infection, disease of spoiled food and perhaps toxic chemical
contamination of the water, Leavitt said.

“In the city of New Orleans, cholera has not been present
for many years. What we are concerned about are the things that
could more likely persist in water,” Leavitt said.

And the crowded shelters could be breeding grounds for
infectious diseases such as the Norwalk virus that plagues
cruise ships and causes diarrhea, influenza and other common
pathogens, Gerberding said.

“You can expect some vomiting and diarrhea to occur,” she
said. Frail adults and small children will be especially
vulnerable.

“Any of the diarrheal diseases could certainly emerge in
this environment and then spread person to person.”

However, the many dead bodies seen floating in the water
and believed to be trapped inside flooded houses are not a
disease threat, Gerberding said.

“How awful to have anyone experience the sight of a dead
body floating in the water,” she said. “But from a health
standpoint, bodies in the water do not pose an infectious
disease threat.”

Some people in the shelters could carry disease such as
tuberculosis, Gerberding said.

“We are focusing on making sure that the immunization of
children is up to date,” she said. “Many of the people in the
shelters are already among the people in our country who
experience health disparities.”

Doctors working at a field hospital at the Louisiana State
University campus in Baton Rouge said they were dispensing more
blood pressure and diabetes medications than anything else.
Leavitt said the strain would tax day-to-day operations at
existing clinics and hospitals.

“One of the most significant areas affected in that way
would be Baton Rouge. That city has gone from a city of half a
million to 850,000,” he said.




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