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Medics are keeping busy

Nurses and doctors from area hospitals who are providing medical care at Camp Williams have had a busy four days since evacuees from the Gulf states started arriving in Utah.

But only a couple dozen people were sick enough to require hospitalization. And the majority of the 175 cases Salt Lake Valley Health Department is tracking as "potential public health issues" will likely turn out to be nothing, said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical officer for the department.

Potential public health concerns include coughing, diarrhea, fever and a history of tuberculosis, among others. If someone complained of a stiff neck, for instance, that could be a health issue that could cause concern because of how contagious some conditions with that symptom are, or it could be that someone was sleeping wrong waiting to be rescued. It all has to be sorted out, Vitek said.

The evacuees were all screened on arrival in Utah for serious, acute medical problems.

Of the 583 here so far, 22 have been sent to area hospitals. All the others were asked to fill out a form if they had any medical concerns at all, which 462 did, Vitek said. A team then screened those to see if they needed immediate care at the fully equipped clinic at Camp Williams, or if care could be briefly deferred.

"The clinic was very busy over the weekend, she said. "The waiting room was packed. The clinic looked like an emergency room, basically."

Some 118 patients were examined over the three-day weekend and another 60 patients with less immediate needs were asked to come back later in the week. The medical team found few people with injuries but a great number of people who had been without needed medications — diabetics without insulin and people without the drugs that control high blood pressure, for instance. They saw some rashes, some diarrhea or fever, some upper-respiratory problems, Vitek said. And a lot of sunburns and heat rashes.

The clinic has a fully-stocked pharmacy, and the Veteran Affairs hospital has provided a pharmacist who was able to dispense needed medications immediately.

"It has been amazing how everybody stepped up," Vitek said, "the private sector and community, too. It's absolutely amazing."

Meanwhile, 26 University Hospital doctors and nurses were busy treating patients in Louisiana. The team, which left Utah early Sunday, had first set up shop in an abandoned Kmart turned into a makeshift hospital put up by Louisiana State University's medical team.

"It has been utter chaos," wrote Dr. Ted Liou, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah, in an e-mail to Utah colleagues. "About a third of us began working the same evening that we arrived on a 12-hour shift. Our ICU-capable nurses were whisked off and seem to have worked 12 hours plus another four to eight hours after only about four hours rest. The others worked a 12-hour shift today at the Kmart Hospital.

"That facility is now being shut down with all the patients getting placed either with their own families, in general shelters or nursing homes or transfer to a hospital. The sewer line completely clogged, and they were unable to repair it, so sanitation levels were plummeting."

Liou wrote that the experience would likely be of "immense value" to Utah in terms of planning for a future disaster.

Dr. Gregory Martin, professor of internal medicine, wrote that the team had been moved to higher-acuity centers where their skills could be better used. The fieldhouse and Pete Marravich Assembly Center on the LSU campus are "object lessons in how to set up a many-hundred-bed disaster facility."

The hospitality of the locals, he added, "is phenomenal."

The team is slated to return Sept. 17 but may be back sooner, U. Hospital spokesman Christopher Nelson said. Team members told hospital administrators that the Gulf states are not lacking in willing medical teams from outside the area; the hang-up has been adequate facilities and supplies. They doubt the 100-member teams area hospitals nationwide, including several in Utah, are putting together will be needed.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com