After five worrisome days during which military evacuations of gravely injured Haitian earthquake victims to the United States were halted — sparking fears among doctors and relief workers that their patients would die if they had to wait much longer — the flights will resume this morning, the White House announced.
The airlift’s suspension forced medical workers in Port-au-Prince to conjure up ways to get patients out of the country while they were treating them. Sunday morning, three children in critical need of care were flown to Philadelphia from Port-au-Prince, but only after private sponsors had been secured.
After five days of wrangling and finger-pointing among state and federal officials and the military, the flights were scheduled to resume as early as 5 a.m. today, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Sunday.
That will be a relief, the acting chief of the University of Miami’s Haiti field hospital said.
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“Right now the word ‘regular’ sounds really good to me,” Gordon Dickinson said.
Dickinson said his team had identified 15 to 20 patients who needed to be sent to the United States immediately for additional care. Six, he said, would leave before noon today.
Still, he said, it was too soon to breathe easy.
“I’m interested to see how things go,” Dickinson said. “I will reserve judgment until I see it in action.”
Sunday’s announcement did not detail which government agencies would foot the victims’ ever-growing medical costs or how hospitals might deal with a potential overflow of patients.
That was a scenario put forward by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist last week, preceding the flights’ suspension Wednesday, 12 days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area, killing an estimated 150,000 and leaving many times that number homeless.
Crist told The Miami Herald on Sunday he had been in talks with federal officials throughout the weekend. He said he expected some final decisions after he meets this afternoon with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in Miami.
“There’s been a lot of confusion over the issue,” said Crist, who was in South Florida for the NFL Pro Bowl. “We wanted to continue bringing in victims in ... I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”
The Florida Department of Health reported Sunday that 526 persons had been received at Florida hospitals, 413 of them in South Florida. It said 76 were being treated in the Orlando area and 37 in the Tampa area.
Last week, Crist wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, asking her to activate the National Disaster Medical System, which helps state and local authorities manage the medical impact of major disasters — including their costs.
Once the military flights stopped, the finger-pointing between state and federal officials and the military began.
Military officials said the states, including Florida, were unwilling to pay for treating victims at their hospitals. Crist insisted that was not true.
American surgeons in Haiti said dozens of hospitals across the United States were willing to share the load. But Vietor, the White House spokesman — who denied the flights’ suspension had anything to do with finances or Crist’s letter — said there was trouble finding hospitals that could take any more patients.
One angry surgeon warned that as many as 100 victims still in Haiti would die at the hands of bureaucracy. One of the patients was a 7-year-old boy who had inadvertently been struck in the head with a pickaxe, sending bone fragments into his brain.
“This kid has a brain injury that is severe, but he is totally salvageable. He is awake and alert,” said Cathy Burnweit, a pediatric surgeon with Miami Children’s Hospital. “He deteriorated overnight, and we need to get him to an environment that is cleaner and where we can monitor him better.”