Concern raised over epidemic potential in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – For health expert and independent Sen. José Vargas Vidot, the Office of Epidemiology and Research of the Department of Health (DS) has failed to prove there is an epidemiological surveillance system that anticipates possible outbreaks of diseases after the passage of two major hurricanes over Puerto Rico.
The senator expressed great concern about the way in which the local government has neglected one of the most important issues the authorities must address after storms of this magnitude.
“To say right now there are no outbreaks when there are is absurd. Outbreaks of conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis, and when there are a number of other things that can be proven; we already have deaths from leptospirosis. I have been going to the center of the island and I see people bathing in water where there are dead animals. I have seen children bathing in puddles left over from the floods and where dead rodents are floating,” said the former community leader turned senator.
He even questioned the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, after she was seen in a photo in waist-high water in an area of the capital, which he called “reckless,” since leptospirosis remains infectious in moving waters for several months.
However, “the case of the 18-year-old boy who died in Toa Baja, I can tell you that this young man was a hero according to of his family. He saved more than 15 people, swimming, getting into the water where there was a proliferation of rats,” Vargas Vidot said.
“So, I wonder, are there any epidemiological sentinels throughout Puerto Rico that might be sensing this and anticipating this? Because, for example, you can implement a very simple and cost-effective protocol of doxycycline, 200 millimeters, once a week for healthcare workers and avoid contagion,” he said.
Vargas Vidot also questioned the authorities’ lack of attention from water runoff, dead animals and debris collection, which he said were the focus of epidemic proliferation.
The senator also stressed that the government has been ineffective in explaining which measures are being taken to prevent the spread of disease associated with the scarcity of basic services.
And, although he described the response of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló as “genuine,” he added that “an emergency response does not exist here,” saying both state and federal governments are responding poorly to the emergency.
“It’s not FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] or anything else, it’s the whole system. For example, a disaster like this, which affects drinking water, access to primary services, roadways, communications, will definitely require contingency plans for these possible alterations and that has not happened. I think once we get through this, we must go straight to erase the board and draft a real emergency management plan,” he said.
“We have a communications system that was a fiasco, it was proposed that by privatizing the communications system it would be the best in the world and turned out to be rubbish. In the designation hearing of the president of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board [Sandra Torres], I asked her precisely about the feasibility of a robust system in the face of an event like this and she told me that they had no problem with that because a balloon would be activated that had a lot of antennas and I don’t know what else, and that has not happened,” he said, criticizing the large disruption in telecommunications services around the island.
Help for Toa Baja
Given what he called a lack of response from the authorities to the emergency in the municipality of Toa Baja, one of the most affected after both recent hurricanes, Iniciativa Comunitaria, a nonprofit led by Vargas Vidot, and in collaboration with Mayor Bernardo “Betito” Márquez, was able to run the Bantiox community clinic at the Pablo Pablito head start school in that town’s Levittown neighborhood.
As Toa Baja’s mayor has pointed out in the past, the town was left deprived of medical services, as all hospitals in the contiguous municipality of Bayamón has informed the mayor that they had not enough resources to go round.
“I went to Toa Baja; I heard that the mayor was alone, I saw there was nothing concrete for that municipality so I went to him and I told him I could build a clinic if he gave me the space. Already, in seven days, we saw 600 patients. From strokes to minor surgery and everything else,” Vargas Vidot said.
“The clinic is totally voluntary. From the government, we have received some meals provided by chefs and five boxes of water from the Department of the Family. Everything else we don’t owe to anyone, so we don’t have to thank anyone other than people for their donations,” he said.
The senator gave the overall response to the emergency by the state government and federal agencies a C-minus.