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Navy Continues to Provide Medical Relief to Puerto Rico Following Hurricane Maria

Sailors embarked aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) transport a patient to Centro Medico hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico Oct. 16, 2017. US Navy Photo

As Puerto Rico’s hospitals are reconnected to a power grid being rebuilt in the wake of Hurricane Maria, military medical providers continue increasing their ability to treat patients on shore and at sea.

Recent news reports suggest two weeks after arriving in Puerto Rico, hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) was not being fully utilized by the civilian agencies coordinating Hurricane Maria relief efforts, however military officials say that while communications with inland Puerto Rico continue to be a challenge there are more military medical options available to disaster victims since Comfort arrived. 

Officials this week highlighted the work done by Comfort’s staff, and other military personnel on the ground in Puerto Rico. As of this week, Comfort had treated more than 100 patients, delivered a baby on Saturday, and continued logistics and medical support operations in Arecibo and Aguadilla, according to a statement released by U.S. Northern Command, which is running the Department of Defense’s Hurricane Maria relief efforts.

Poor communications between local providers, civilian medical officials in charge of evaluating medical needs, and the military were cited as a possible cause for health clinics and hospitals on the island being at capacity while 13 percent of Comfort’s beds were occupied. A CNN story reported Tuesday only 33 of the hospital ship’s 250 beds were being used, as the ship operates in the vicinity of San Juan.

In comparison, seven years ago, when Comfort went to Haiti following a January 2010 earthquake, the ship’s staff treated 871 patients during a seven-week period, including 540 critically injured patients who were brought on board within the first 10 days. During the initial phase of its mission, the ship ran 10 operating rooms at full capacity to care for severely injured earthquake survivors.

A U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter assigned to Charlie Company, 6th Battalion, Combat Aviation Brigade, lands on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) in order to complete day landing qualifications Oct. 13, 2017. US Navy Photo

Following hospital assessments made by Marines and sailors from the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, Northern Command stationed National Guardsmen at the hospitals to improve communications between facilities, civilian health authorities, and the military. The Marines and sailors also helped fix hospital generators and checked stockpiles of food and drinking water. Northern Command reports 64 of 67 Puerto Rican hospitals are open, with 41 now hooked up to the power grid.

The Navy and Marine Corps sent additional helicopters to Puerto Rico this week, to deliver supplies and provide medical evacuations, a Navy spokesperson told USNI News. There are now 66 total helicopters in the region, located at various points around the island.

Meanwhile, other military teams are providing medical care on the ground in Puerto Rico, Northern Command reported. The Army’s 14th Combat Surgical Hospital, from Fort Benning, Ga., set up a 44-bed facility with intensive care units and two operating rooms. The Army’s 285th and the 335th Area Medical Support companies are operating acute care clinics in Ceiba, Fajardo, and Aguadilla. Also in Aguadilla, from Joint Base Langley-Eustis near Newport News, Va., the U.S. Air Force 633rd Medical Group is in the process of setting up an expeditionary medical support hospital.

The Kearsarge ARG includes amphibious assault ships USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) includes USS Wasp (LHD-1), and dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD-51) along with Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and U.S. Navy Seabees.

Marines from the 24th MEU and Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion 2, Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 202, continue clearing roads in Puerto Rico, to ease the flow of supplies to the interior of the island and improve access to medical centers.

  • Western

    I understand from Wiki that Project Loon is in the initial stages of providing cell and internet service to Puerto Rico. Is the Navy utilizing or supporting that communications network?

    • Stephen

      I’d still like to see four US Navy ships docked in Puerto Rico, supplying power, water, food & medical services. This is American soil, we need to make the effort that many fought against in Haiti, fearing it might look like an invasion. If we are still the greatest nation; let’s make this happen.

      • Western

        Ships currently there include Wasp, Kearsarge, Oak Hill, and Comfort (4).

        • Stephen

          Are they docked or off-shore? Docked, they can have direct impact. The Comfort came under a negative review when access was identified as too complex. Restricted to those with working telephones? A docked vessel is better able to receive patients, triage & transport critical to the Comfort. The Army should be doing this in the field. We are about to see a Public Health disaster unfold right before our eyes. We need a George Marshall to implement a Plan for Puerto Rico & this crisis needs the same level of effort we demonstrated during the Berlin Airlift.

          • Western

            Read the article again, and read the FEMA status on their website. Most of the existing hospitals are working again, and they are being augmented by additional on-shore and afloat facilities. There are also hundreds of flights per day out of the functional PR airport. Alot more is being done that you are accepting.

          • Stephen

            I know that tremendous effort is being expended. I am reminded of our inaction in Haiti; don’t want to repeat that debacle. Hospitals are augmented & generators are being monitored. That’s real progress. PR interior much harder to assess & news coverage seems to follow FEMA (good news). Bathing & drinking raw water can lead to waterborne disease outbreaks. Another fear is that when the response phase is deemed complete, restoration phase will need an organized Director; I envision a ‘George Marshall’ type… The environmental impact has yet to be addressed; the shear volume of debris/waste & who knows what else needs to be separated & treated. I admire the performance of our armed forces & pray that when this is over & done; we can hold our heads up & be proud of our nation.

          • redduke

            “Puerto Rico’s Department of Health has to decide which patients can get care aboard the ship. And referrals have been minimal.” yea, that’s just too complex to understand. Even the Haitians got it after their earthquake. Why can’t the Puerto Ricans? (I know the answer . . . corruption)

          • Stephen

            I remain sensitive as I was affronted by State & told to stand down in Haiti. Clearly a strong military presence was needed. We rose to the highest level during the Berlin Airlift; this is even bigger…

  • omegatalon

    Puerto Rico is like Michigan as after years of a Democrat in charge.. there entire island needs rehab on a massive scale because of decades of neglect as the infrastructure is shot as Congress will need to spend hundreds of $Billions to make functional; we should give Puerto Rico to North Korea.