[WASHINGTON, DC] – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent letters today to Acting Secretary Eric Hargan of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requesting a full analysis of the steps being taken to address the public health crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico and their plans to mitigate any future loss of life due to disease outbreaks.
Hurricane Maria has left large swaths of the island without clean water, electricity, access to medicine, and efficient transportation infrastructure – dangerous conditions that combine to pose a serious health risk to the millions of Puerto Ricans still on the island.
“I have deep concerns with the Trump administration’s flawed, faltering, and highly deficient response to this widening crisis, stemming in large part from FEMA’s continued mismanagement in Puerto Rico,” wrote Blumenthal. “Due to the burgeoning public health crisis in Puerto Rico and the Trump administration’s demonstrated inability to provide even a semblance of adequate disaster relief through other agencies, I am writing to request more information on what steps HHS and CDC are taking to prevent, surveil, and respond to the public health plight of the Puerto Rican people.”
Blumenthal’s full letter to the CDC and HHS is available here, and copied below.
Dear Acting Secretary Hargan and Dr. Fitzgerald,
We are now approaching one month since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, and by all accounts – from my own firsthand, my constituents with families on the island, and the voluminous news reports that paint an increasingly grim picture – the public health situation in Puerto Rico is teetering toward a terrifying collapse that could lead to unprecedented sickness and death. Therefore, I request a full analysis of your short and long-terms plans to mitigate the heightened risk of public health epidemics that may arise in the wake of these catastrophic natural disasters.
I have deep concerns with the Trump administration’s flawed, faltering, and highly deficient response to this widening crisis, stemming in large part from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) continued mismanagement in Puerto Rico. Due to the burgeoning public health crisis in Puerto Rico and the Trump administration’s demonstrated inability to provide even a semblance of adequate disaster relief through other agencies, I am writing to request more information on what steps the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are taking to prevent, surveil, and respond to the public health plight of the Puerto Rican people.
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, over 35 percent of the population still has access to no clean drinking water, with some desperate enough to seek water from heavily polluted and hazardous Superfund sites. As the New York Times reports, even those with clean tap water are avoiding it as much as possible “because of reports that infectious diseases are spreading on the island.” These fears are not entirely unfounded, with ten suspected cases of leptospirosis, a disease spread by contaminated water, leading to at least four deaths. It is critical that, in the absence of clean water, measures be taken to ensure leptospirosis and other illnesses caused by or spread through contaminated water be monitored and prevented.
Due to Puerto Rico’s tropical and humid conditions, I am also deeply troubled by the dangerous spread of mosquito-borne illnesses. Dr. Carmen Zorrilla, who bravely remained in Puerto Rico to continue working in her hospital, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the “reactivation of dengue, Zika, and chikungunya epidemics is one major concern” in the aftermath of the storm. Indeed, following storms as cataclysmic as Hurricane Maria, infectious diseases and preventable illnesses proliferate, making a robust, and timely public health response to prevent further death even more urgent and necessary.
Without immediate action to prevent disease from spreading in the first place, treating those who have fallen ill will undoubtedly burden an already stressed medical system. Hospitals lack power, antibiotics, and other medicines, and Puerto Rico’s damaged infrastructure has made accessing care and supplies even more challenging. HHS and CDC must emphasize to the Administration the widespread need for disease control, surveillance, prevention, and treatment both immediately and well into the future to prevent his humanitarian crisis from growing.
Further, CDC must immediately work to confirm the number of deaths that have occurred – directly or indirectly – as a result of Hurricane Maria. While the official death toll still sits at 45, some estimates have the number at ten times that, with overcrowded morgues and skyrocketing death rates being reported. It is imperative that Americans, including top officials, understand the full scope of devastation being endured by our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.
Therefore, I request a response detailing the actions HHS and CDC have taken to immediately address the public health and infectious disease concerns that are threatening Puerto Rico. I also request more information on the long-term plan being implemented to ensure that public health remains a priority as Puerto Rico rebuilds and recovers. Finally, I request, as quickly as possible, an official accounting of the total number of deaths that Puerto Rico has endured thus far at the hands of Hurricane Maria. I left Puerto Rico deeply inspired by the courageous, and hardworking public servants that have dedicated their time and energy towards lending a hand to their fellow Americans. I believe it stands as a disservice to them and the people of Puerto Rico if the difficult questions being asked of FEMA and other agencies continue to go unanswered.