- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is helping Louisiana officials evacuate 2,500 patients from hospitals in hurricane-soaked New Orleans.

The most critically ill patients — including premature infants requiring high-tech neonatal care — were among the first evacuated, HHS spokesman Bill Hall said yesterday.

In fact, 30 tiny newborns were among 200 patients removed during the first 24 hours of the evacuation period, which began Tuesday at 9 a.m., according to W. Keith Simon, spokesman for Acadian Ambulance Service, which is coordinating evacuations at six hospitals.

By late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Simon said he expected as many as 400 patients to be evacuated from those hospitals. Asked when all patients would be moved out of New Orleans’ six hospitals, Mr. Hall could only say: “As soon as we can.”

Federal assistance was requested after New Orleans was ordered evacuated, when 80 percent of the city went under water following the failure of flood-control levees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“This is a major undertaking, and we’re facing an incredibly difficult area in which to work, in that we can only get in by helicopters and boats,” Mr. Hall said yesterday.

John Matessino, president and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Hospital Association, said yesterday a “full-scale evacuation was underway” at Touro Infirmary, a facility that was treating 130 patients when its electrical generators failed.

The military assisted transporting patients. At Touro, Mr. Matessino said, Black Hawk helicopters took out “every patient,” flying them to a local airport, where they were put on large military planes and flown to hospitals in other areas.

Mr. Matessino said three medical residents from Children’s Hospital used a firetruck and a small boat to pick up two preemies in danger of dying at another area hospital. The infants were rescued and are doing fine, he said.

There is no running water and only emergency electricity at most of New Orleans’ hospitals. With temperatures in the 90s, Mr. Matessino said, “If we don’t get patients out of the hospitals, we’ll start losing patients.”

To help ease discomfort, state and local police, as well as personnel from the Louisiana Hospital Association and various relief groups, are trying to provide necessities such as food, oxygen, blood, generators, diesel fuel, electric fans, medical supplies, drugs and ice.

The HHS spokesman said the federal department is working to find available hospital beds to accept patients from New Orleans and other storm-ravaged areas. “We’ve identified 2,600 available beds in 12 states around the Gulf region and 40,000 beds nationwide,” Mr. Hall said.

In addition, he said, HHS has established a 250-bed mobile hospital in Baton Rouge and has dispatched 38 Public Health Service officers to assist in the storm area. HHS is “working with the Department of Defense for the transport of patients and to identify planes and boats that could be of service,” Mr. Hall said.

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