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Puerto Rico doctors only now discovering the problems in remote towns

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said shoring up hospitals in mountain towns like Jayuya is a priority because they "present potential future challenges, public health emergencies."

Rossello noted that the death toll of the hurricane had risen to 34, including 15 deaths indirectly caused after the storm. Local officials have said people died after the storm because of a lack of oxygen tanks, electricity to fuel life support and other problems.

Rossello said officials were also concerned about disease outbreaks, and have already seen some that were "localized," including several cases of conjunctivitis at a shelter in the southern city of Ponce. Rossello said federal medical disaster management teams had been mobilized in Ponce "so we can control it," and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent staff to check for the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses.

Rossello said his goal in shoring up hospitals ahead of outbreaks was "for us to be able to anticipate rather than just react."

He said Friday that 25 of 68 hospitals had power, and more were expected to be connected soon. The government supplied fuel to 11 hospitals and more was delivered Friday, he said.

In the past two weeks, volunteer doctors and other officials have visited incommunicado communities in Anasco, Ciales, Comerio, Juana Diaz, Las Marias, Maricao, San Lorenzo and Yauco, officials said Friday. Some sites were so hard to reach, helicopter had to land on the second floor of a house, according to the governor's chief of staff, William Villafane, who visited the sites. "We provided them with necessary medicines. We're saving lives," he said.

Eight medical disaster management assistance teams from the mainland were helping hospitals in San Juan, Arecibo, Caguas, Fajardo, Humacao and Ponce, he said.

The 250-bed military hospital ship Comfort arrived in Puerto Rico this week and was still in San Juan Friday. It can treat up to 1,000 patients and was expected to move to Ceiba, Ponce and Aguadilla.

But that wouldn't help those stranded in Jayuya.

Driving back to the Jayuya hospital on an all-terrain vehicle Wednesday, Dr. Lopez surveyed the town. He worried how the small hospital would cope with possible outbreaks in coming weeks, especially tropical mosquito-borne illnesses.

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