Dr. Marc Siegel: In Houston after Harvey, HHS Secretary Price is a surgeon operating on a health disaster

As the body and injury counts rise in East Texas and Louisiana, an uncounted number — one that doesn’t bring the same media attention as deaths — is rising too: the number of lives saved.

When President Trump called Hurricane Harvey a natural disaster and Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price followed by declaring a public health emergency, they initiated a coordinated federal, state and local health care response that has likely saved thousands of lives.

Price spoke to me at his operations center at HHS last week, and he emphasized that responders are facing everything from a shortage of potable water to floodwater contamination with chemicals and bacteria, from mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile virus and Zika to black mold, which can worsen asthma, emphysema and allergies.

The key to saving people, Price said, is to match the intervention with the need, and this means relying on HHS’s database as well as its integrated relationship with state and local health officials.

“There are a lot of people who are electricity-dependent for their health, people on dialysis, people on oxygen concentrators, people in electric wheelchairs and have no mobility without that,” Price said, adding that HHS has crucial information on these people if they have Medicare or Medicaid. “The only way local folks know who they are, so they go knock on the door and say, ‘Are you all right, Ms. Jones?’ is that we give them that name and address.”

Price emphasized that there were many dress rehearsals involving his staff and health officials all over the country before the curtain rose on Harvey.

The HHS secretary’s operations center is open 24/7, 365 days a year, and it is currently tracking hospital, shelter and dialysis centers to determine which remain open and which are closed. The key, Price said, is to maintain the health care supply line to the chronically ill. “The challenge in this storm is, because of the incredible flooding that has occurred, is getting the resources to the individual, so the pharmaceutical supplies are available,” he told me.

Price’s surgical skills were in evidence as he talked about triage. Efforts to save one patient can be applied to thousands in a disaster like Harvey, but we are far from out of the woods. Price said it will take several years for the infrastructure to be rebuilt. In the meantime, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress tied to the flood and the rising waters will abound. Even those who simply watched the images on TV can be affected, imagining their own houses being flooded.

Price is only the third physician to serve as HHS secretary, and he appears comfortable intervening when lives are on the line — just as he was as a surgeon (he trained as a trauma surgeon before switching to orthopedics).

He talked about the tireless work of the staff who surround him in the operations center. He goes there every day and interacts with his team as well as the team on the ground and the various health officials in the region.

The Secretary Price we see fighting for health insurance reform on TV is not the same Price we see with his suit jacket off, solving problems in his operations center. How to get needed medicines to sick people? How to get clean water to those who don’t have it? How to make sure everyone knows whom to reach out to if they are experiencing fear, anxiety or depression? Price in the operations center is the same Price of the operating room: cool, calm, shirtsleeves rolled up, solving problems.

“As a physician, as you know, what that brings is just the elements of appreciating the individual patient, the individual who’s out there that needs assistance,” he said. “We used to take call in our early days and come into the emergency room and treat one patient, one individual who needed an expertise, who needed care and compassion and love, and that’s what I try to bring to the table.”

Dr. Robert Kadlec, assistant HHS secretary for preparedness and response, was confirmed just in time for the storm, and he has played a crucial role in moving the lifesaving chess pieces around. But Price showed me the empty chair and desk where his deputy is supposed to sit. Eric Hargan’s nomination to the post went before the Senate Finance Committee in June, but the committee has yet to advance his nomination to the full Senate. Price lamented Hargan’s absence, indicating that he needed all hands on deck in the middle of the Harvey disaster.

Now is not the time for political infighting and divisiveness. It is not the time to point fingers or place blame.

Now is the time for the country and its leaders to come together to save people and repair damaged land.

Dr. Price is the right surgeon for the operation.