'Health Emergency' Declaration Gives Special Powers to Victims

Federal health officials on Wednesday mobilized thousands of personnel in an attempt to treat wounded victims of Hurricane Katrina and prevent disease and injuries from claiming more lives in the storm's aftermath.

Officials say immediate efforts are centered on caring for thousands of residents injured during the storm itself or during rescue or escape from flooded communities in New Orleans and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida.

Appearing with several other Cabinet officials, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt declared a federal public health emergency for the affected areas and said that his department would establish up to 40 emergency medical facilities to treat injuries.

Public health emergency declarations are usually reserved as a way to invoke quarantine powers during infectious disease outbreaks. But Wednesday's move enables federal officials to circumvent some federal health regulations as a way to speed treatment to disaster victims.

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Help for Medicaid Patients

For example, Medicaid patients will be able to circumvent normal rules that require them to obtain medications only in their state of residence. "We're waiving that for those people so that when they're evacuated they can still get their medicines," HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson says.

The declaration also suspends Medicare rules preventing hospitals and nursing homes from moving patients to outside facilities without prior government approval.

Clinics are being supplied by dozens of emergency medical supply trucks maintained by the federal government for quick response to natural disasters or terrorist attacks. The trucks include supplies of surgical equipment, cots, and prescription drugs to treat infections, diabetes, and emergency heart conditions, according to the CDC.

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Emergency Centers

About 140 emergency personnel have already treated "hundreds" of patients at a makeshift hospital set up in the Pete Maravich sports arena at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Pearson says.

Leavitt says 10 more emergency centers would be set up within the next three days, followed by more as they are needed.

Broken limbs from falls as well as electrocutions from downed power lines have become common among storm victims and rescue workers, says Thomas Skinner, a CDC spokesman. Violence spurred by looting and theft has also played a role in injuries, according to news reports.

Injuries also continue to mount as displaced and dispossessed residents in Katrina's path struggle to stay safe under extreme conditions.

"We've seen literally dozens and dozens of injuries from people asphyxiating from the use of gas generators indoors and have already seen some deaths," he says.

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Long-Term Health

Public health officials are also bracing for infectious diseases that may spread as contaminated water continues to fester over wide areas of four states. Government officials have begun a dual role of sending clean water and food to the area while advising residents to boil water and avoid food that has not been refrigerated.

"We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid, dehydrating diseases," Leavitt says. Other waterborne diseases — including hepatitis A, giardia, cryptosporidium, and E. coli — are expected to pose a continuing threat because of water contaminated with sewage and other pollution.

Federal personnel are also advising state and local officials to begin widespread spraying against mosquitoes expected to hatch in standing water in the coming days.

"For people who were blessed enough to get through the storm, we're trying to make sure that something else doesn't get them afterward," Pearson says.

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By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Christina Pearson, spokeswoman, HHS. Thomas Skinner, spokesman, CDC.