A month has passed since Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in ruins. Now, the island is facing a multi-pronged health crisis. And people need hospitals.
Enter the the Navy’s East Coast Hospital Ship. The U.S. Department of Defense recently dispatched the ship to care for patients while Puerto Rico’s hospitals get back on their feet. Unfortunately, poor communication has kept residents and doctors from knowing how to access the ship—and heavy rains have limited the island’s use of helicopters to transport ready patients to it.
The barco hospital, as it’s referred to in Spanish, arrived in Puerto Rico on October 4, according to the Department of Defense. It offers emergency facilities capable of basic surgery and postoperative treatment. Since 1987, the USNS Comfort has been to Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, to provide medical care during humanitarian assistance missions like Continuing Promise 2011. It also supported rescue efforts in New York City after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The ship is now off the northern coast of Puerto Rico. On Monday, a mother gave birth to a girl, making baby Sara Victoria Llull Rodriguiz the first Boricua born on the ship. Few others, however, have been lucky enough to board the ship and receive its aid, according to a CNN report.
As of Tuesday, per the CNN report, just 33 of the 250 beds available were being used after the ship’s arrival two weeks ago. Meanwhile, 70 assisted hospitals are serving the island’s population of more than 3 million, but just 45 hospitals have electricity.
A big part of the problem is that locals haven’t known how to access the hospital. In response to this confusion, Jorge Matta Gonzalez, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Medical Services Administration, launched a bilingual call center Monday to bring Puerto Ricans to the hospital ship, as well as connect the U.S. citizens to medical professionals who can offer a phone consultation.
Anyone can call the center free of charge, Jesús Vélez, communications director of the health services administration, told Earther. If family members in New York, for example, know that their loved one in Ponce, Puerto Rico, needs medical aid, they can dial the number to request help.
“Once we have a patient’s info, we communicate that with health personnel on the ship and become the referral for the patient,” Vélez told Earther in Spanish. “Then, the clinical personnel and professionals on the boat determine whether to receive the patient and get involved to find the patient, wherever they are, and bring them to the boat if their condition merits it.”
After the boat has decided to receive a patient, the trick is actually getting that patient to the USNS Comfort. What’s reassuring is that patients don’t have to worry about transportation payments; federal relief funds are covering this cost. Once patients are picked up, they’re taken to the Puerto Rican Medical Center in San Juan. From there, doctors make a final decision on whether they need the USNS Comfort.
If they do, they’d fly over via helicopter. Rainy weather conditions are making that tough, though. Helicopters can’t conduct lifts past 4 p.m. Atlantic Standard Time in severe rain, Vélez explained to Earther, but the call center lines are open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.
The Puerto Rican government is using the press and radio to let its residents know the call center is now available. They’ve also informed hospitals about this new process, Vélez said. Before the Puerto Rican government opened the call center, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló admitted to CNN that the island needs to improve the communication system to bring patients to USNS Comfort.
“The disconnect or the apparent disconnect was in the communications flow,” he told CNN. He requested that the territory revise the situation, and now the call center system exists.
The boat has primarily kept to the northern part of the island, but Vélez speculates it could head south any day now for easier access to those regions. The wait time for pick-up really depends on the situation, Vélez said. The government is offering this service across the entire island, so it might take a while to find people in remote villages. He couldn’t give a rough estimate for what average pick-up times have been for the 150 calls the center received between Monday and Tuesday.
President Donald Trump deployed the hospital ship after receiving criticisms for not doing so—most notably from his former opponent Hillary Clinton.
Tuesday, after CNN published its report on the USNS Comfort’s beds remaining empty, Clinton returned to Twitter with even more thoughts on the crisis.
While the new call center is supposed to help bring Puerto Ricans most in need to the boat, authorities need people to call first. People in Puerto Rico can dial 787-777-3535 extensions 3711, 3712, 3713, 3714, 3715, and 3716 to request immediate medical help.
What remains to be seen is if their requests will be answered. These U.S. citizens can call all they want, but their pleas will amount to nothing if authorities can’t reach them in time.