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News briefing on the U.S. government response to the Haiti earthquake (text)

January 20, 2010 |  2:41 pm

The following is the transcript released by the White House Press Office of today's press briefing via conference call with Capt. Andy Stevermer, commander of the Incident Response Coordination Team for the Department of Health and Human Services in Haiti.

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MR. STONEKING: Thank you. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, or good afternoon. Thanks for your patience again. As you can see, communications continues to be a little bit of a challenge. It's just part of what we're working with every day here to get done what we have done on behalf of the Haitian people and the survivors.

Today's speaker, we have one speaker today so we have a very focused conversation. So, again, anything outside these lanes, we'd ask that you e-mail to our haitijic@usaid.gov, and we'd be happy to help you through that, and through further teleconferences in the days to come.

But today our focus is health issues, and our speaker is Captain Andy Stevermer. And Captain Stevermer is the Commander of the Incident Response Coordination Team, National Disaster Medical System. And at this point, I'll turn you over to Captain Stevermer.

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: Good afternoon, everyone. This is Captain Andy Stevermer. I'm a captain with the United States Public Health Service, and I am the Commander of the Incident Response Coordination Team for the Department of Health and Human Services, which means basically that I'm in charge of all on-the-ground assets here in Haiti for the Department of Health and Human Services in order to provide medical response to this disaster.

Before I begin my opening comments, I want to first of all just say to everyone, and especially the people of Haiti, that I want to extend my sympathies to all of the Haitian people, who have demonstrated courage, graciousness, and resilience through this overwhelming disaster.

I have been associated with Haiti for the last 13 years, and I know the people of Haiti. And my heart goes out to them in their struggles and in their losses.

Now, to my comments about the current international medical response. We are just a part of the international medical response, and we are working as quickly as possible to save lives and to provide immediate medical care here in Haiti. We currently have more than 270 medical personnel in Port-au-Prince, which include doctors, nurses, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and others. These members work for the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the National Disaster Medical System. They have taken time out of their daily jobs in the U.S. to come here and to assist with the relief efforts.

To date, these medical teams have been seeing patients beginning on Sunday, and since that time have seen 5,100 people. We currently have five disaster medical assistance teams and one international medical surgical response team in Port-au-Prince.

All of the five disaster medical assistance teams are currently engaged treating, triaging, and providing -- conducting surgery for patients. The most common medical problems which are being treated are traumatic injuries from the earthquake and exacerbations of chronic disease caused by lack of access to care and -- lack of access to care.

The United States is increasing its capacity to deliver assistance. And this morning, the USN Comfort, a large hospital ship, arrived from Baltimore with more than 600 medical persons on board, bringing a tremendous capability to the people of Haiti. Already, these patients are being triaged and prepared to board the U.S. Comfort via helicopter and receive the treatment they need.

One of our disaster medical assistance teams is working as a staging facility at a pier here in Port-au-Prince to triage patients who will then fly by helicopter for treatment aboard the Comfort. Another of our disaster medical assistance teams and our surgical team are currently working on a large soccer field near the GHESKIO clinic here in Port-au-Prince and have been active for the past three days.

Additional teams are providing relief for overwhelmed hospitals in Port-au-Prince. This activity is being done at the direction of and in full coordination with the Haitian Ministry of Health, the United States' Health and Human Services, and the Department of Defense. We are working together down here to move patients from overwhelmed hospitals and to find beds in other hospitals to provide relief to local facilities.

Supplies are arriving on a daily basis. Two planeloads of medical supplies and medical equipment arrived in Haiti yesterday, and the bulk of which have already been distributed to the sites where care is being provided. In addition, we are providing additional resources. Health and Human Services has provided, through the USAID, a surgical cache of medical equipment and supplies that will be distributed to medical facilities here in Haiti.

In summary, let me reiterate that we are working as quickly as possible to meet the tremendous medical needs here in Haiti.

MR. STONEKING: Thank you very much, Captain Stevermer, and we will take questions here in just a second. I'll just remind you again that Mr. Tim Callaghan, from USAID, who was here yesterday, he will return tomorrow for broader questions on the broader support that USAID is providing. But we now welcome questions on health issues to Captain Stevermer.

Q Thank you so much for taking the call and for the work that you're doing down there. I was wondering if you can talk -- I understand about the Comfort and everything that you're setting up. Can you speak at all about the lack of medical supplies for other doctors on the ground? It seems that a lot of our teams on the ground are reporting that a lot of doctors do not have the supply -- there is no dearth of doctors and people that want to do good work, but that they're not getting the medical supplies that they need to get the job done, and if you have any thoughts or any information on why that doesn't seem to be happening.

And I'm not sure if you're able to talk about this specifically, but Doctors Without Borders has reported that their plane was diverted five times for their urgently needed supplies to get on the ground, if you have any information on that. Thank you very much.

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: Thank you. Let me be -- start by saying medical supplies are critical to our efforts -- our successful efforts here with providing health care, and getting these supplies into theater in a timely fashion is incredibly important.

The efforts of supplying all of the various medical providers is being conducted through the World Health Organization, who is coordinating all international donors of pharmaceuticals and consumable medical supplies into a single system run by the Haitian Ministry of Health, known as PROMESS, which are then being distributed out to the responders as well as to the existing hospitals here in Haiti.

This system is getting better every day in its warehouses and its supplies and its ability to distribute these sites to the many, many providers who are in this theater of operations. We are working closely with the Haitian government to identify unmet needs and to address those needs.

As for the second part of your question, I do not control the planes coming in and out of the airport here in Port-au-Prince. We have a single airport, which has been damaged from the earthquake. It is under the control of the U.S. military, and we are working very hard to increase its capability to bring necessary supplies to the people of Haiti who need them.

Q I wanted to ask you a question about the Comfort. It's a ship -- correct me if I'm wrong -- it has 12 operating rooms, about a capacity for about 1,000 beds. How many people do you expect to be treating on this ship, and how many have you already moved out there?

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: The Comfort has arrived in port and is preparing to and very soon to begin seeing patients.

The volume of patients to be seen is the prerogative of the Department of Defense who run that resource. We will use that resource to the maximum capability that is necessary to support the needs here in Haiti.

MR. STONEKING: Thank you. I would like to add, as the moderator, we invited and hope before the end of the call to have a representative from the Comfort. If that doesn't occur today we'll certainly pursue for greater detail tomorrow or the next day with that specific sub-topic.

Q Actually I have two quick ones, if I can. One is, can you give some sense of the need for -- the number of injured, the need for care, and the (inaudible) supply if you -- of course, it's better now the Comfort (inaudible). And the second one is, can you comment on this morning's aftershocks? Have we seen (inaudible) as a result of that affected operations at all? So two questions, one having to do with (inaudible) and the other (inaudible)?

MR. STOVEKING: I think we hear the question. I apologize, caller, you were a little bit hard to hear. But I think you're asking the total numbers injured and if there is an increase of injuries after today's shocks. And with that that we'll give it to Captain Stevermer.

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: Okay. As for the incoming -- the number of people injured is a number that we are attempting to determine. That is being coordinated through a coordinating body with the Haitian Ministry of Health with support from the World Health Organization. I have not seen estimates on the number of injured nor the number of fatalities, and would look to the Ministry of Health to provide those details.

As for the aftershock, I am unaware of any additional injuries. Our clientele -- our personnel are safe. And I am sure that these types of aftershocks are very disconcerting to those living in Haiti in the aftermath of this disaster.

Next question.

Q I just wanted to follow up on something that you had said about the distribution of the medicine. I'm a little bit confused. Who is running the operation? Is it the WHO or the Haitian Ministry of Health? And how is that working, because as we know there's been a lack of capacity on the Haitian Ministry side? And so I'm just wondering if that lack of capacity is slowing up the distribution of medical supplies throughout the country? Or do you think it's an issue of infrastructure or things like that? Thanks.

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: Yes, as I previously stated, the timely need for medical supplies is critical to the success of this mission. The responsibility for coordinating and receiving the donations is currently being done through the World Health Organization. The distribution is being done through the Haitian Ministry of Health, their existing system of essential drugs, know as PROMESS.

That system, which is being challenged by the demand for these types of supplies, by the large numbers of additional providers who have moved into the area to respond to this disaster, it is getting better every day. The amount of drugs and supplies available is building. And we are continuing to watch and identify additional needs that might need to be brought to Port-au-Prince.

Q I wanted to ask you, there was -- a few days ago, there was an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba to allow the U.S. to over fly Cuban airspace for medical evacuations. I wanted to ask if there are U.S. personnel working side by side with Cuban doctors who were either sent after the quake or were already working in Haiti beforehand.

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: Sir, thank you very much for that question. I am not aware of the flights, the medical evacuation flights over Cuba, nor am I aware of responders working side by side with Cuban physicians. I do know that there are many Cuban physicians that serve in Haiti, so it's quite probable that that is going on.

Q I just want to follow up specifically on that issue about the Haitian Ministry of Health. Do you think that the -- honestly, I know that there is a great necessity and desire to make sure that the Haitian government is coordinating with you and that they should be in the lead on prioritizing what the needs are in the country. But given the damage to the country -- and I know the Ministry of Health is actually one of the ones that's in better shape than others -- do they really have the capacity to distribute aid throughout the country? And given like your sophisticated delivery systems, do they have the capability to do that? Or can it be done more expediently through you, through the U.S. military, or through the U.N.?

MR. STONEKING: As the moderator, first, I just want to point out that based on these good questions, though, we'll certainly extend an invite in the coming days to both the Haitian government and WHO to give a more full-circle answer. But that being said, let me turn to Captain Stevermer to get his insight.

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: We are working with the Haitian Ministry of Health and supporting the Haitian Ministry of Health with personnel to be able to manage the surge of workload that they are experiencing as a result of this disaster. And the activities remain that -- such as distribution -- remain under the control and direction of the Haitian Ministry of Health.

Q My question is about people rescued alive. Has anyone been rescued alive since Monday when the two-year-old girl was taken from the rubble?

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: I am not aware of that particular situation, but there are many stories by the search and rescue teams of very heroic rescues of people even this late in the response.

Many of the search and rescue teams do come from the United States, as well as elsewhere in the world, and there are many tales of successful saves that are very touching.

MR. STONEKING: And I would just add that, since it hit on rescue, just to bring you up on the latest statistics there. So far there have been 43 individuals rescued from collapsed buildings from the United States search and rescue teams alone, bringing a grand total of 75 rescued today. Those are some historic numbers. Some of the search and rescue folks have informed us that on Sunday, having 12 rescues alone, was a record for one-day rescues. Some rescues have lasted 17 hours; one lasted 24 hours -- both successful. A young baby on the fifth day here rescued successfully, and just yesterday on day seven a Haitian woman who'd been trapped for seven days without food or water was rescued successfully.

So the stories of survival and rescue and health success stories continue to grow on a daily basis.

Q Just wondering if there are schools open in the Port-au-Prince area, and if so, how the government is handling emergency plans for education?

MR. STONEKING: We can only tell you anecdotally from previous reports today, President Préval has said that schools will be reopening soon, under tents, in some cases. So we have heard that. We can share that with you as reported information here because we're on the ground. But that's not Captain Stevermer's area of expertise. So if you'd like to forward that question to our haitijic@usaid.gov e-mail, we'll get it to the right folks who can give you an authoritative answer.

Q Hi, thanks for having my question. I just -- we just got a wire, a newswire thing that the U.S. military might send 4,000 more soldiers currently in Europe to Haiti. I just want to know if you can confirm on that. Thank you.

MR. STONEKING: Certainly cannot speculate or confirm statistics on military. We don't have a military member in the room as part of that operation. But, operator, if there are any more health-related questions, we have time for one or two more questions. Thank you.

Q We would like to know if you have made any contact with PAHO/WHO since you arrived in the morning, and also if you have the necessary equipment to broadcast and stable Internet connection?

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: Yes, let me begin by just thanking PAHO and the World Health Organization for their leadership in coordinating this multinational response.

Health and Human Services is working closely with the health cluster, which is being coordinated here in Haiti by the Pan American Health Organization. We have offered our staff to help support those efforts, and currently have an individual working directly with PAHO staff to do assessments of hospitals and clinics. In addition, we have several members -- or employees from the Centers for Disease Control who are supporting the PAHO efforts conducting public health assessments and to push forward with the longer-range public health recovery of Port-au-Prince.

Q To whoever can best answer this, do you have any estimates so far as to how much this has all cost, this health effort has cost, and really how much it will when it's all said and done? And if you can't give us that, what have you spent so far?

MR. STONEKING: I'm afraid that question also would have to be referred to our haitijic@usaid.gov e-mail. We'd be happy to staff that for you as quick as possible.

Q The question I would put to you is the question that the President of the Association of Haitian Physicians put to me yesterday. He has a list of 250 Haitian medical professionals that are ready to go to Haiti and help. Who can he coordinate with? Should he coordinate directly with the United States or the Haitian government? What he's interested in is really sort of these people could travel to Haiti as soon as possible and participate in the relief effort.

CAPTAIN STEVERMER: Thank you, sir. That is greatly appreciated, and coordination of those health professionals needs to be done through the Pan American Health Organization, PAHO, to best utilize their expertise and cultural knowledge and linguistic knowledge here in Port-au-Prince.

I want to close here by just saying, first of all, that we are making progress, and that we are working very hard and as quickly as possible to bring health care to Haiti and the victims of this overwhelming tragedy here.

We will continue to push forward in our provision of care, as directed by the Haitian Ministry of Health, and we continue to extend our deepest sympathies to the people of Haiti that have been impacted by this disaster.

Dan.

MR. STONEKING: Thank you. And we'd just like to thank everybody for continuing to call in and show an interest as we recover and focus on life-saving and life-sustaining events here in Haiti. I ask you again, if you have questions between conference calls, e-mail them to haitijic@usaid.gov, and your questions today and throughout help us prepare for future briefings with the right speakers to answer those questions that are of importance to you and the public.

And thank you with that, and have a good afternoon.

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