The U.S. military has halted flights carrying Haitian earthquake victims to the United States because of an apparent dispute over where seriously injured patients should be taken for treatment.
An American doctor treating victims in Port-au-Prince warned that at least 100 critically ill patients needed to get to better hospitals or they could die, while the U.S. government said it was working to expand hospital capacity in both Haiti and in the U.S.
It was unclear exactly what prompted the decision Wednesday by the U.S. military to suspend the flights or when the suspension would end. Military officials said some states were refusing to take patients, though they wouldn't say which states. The halt was first reported by The New York Times.
"There has been no policy decision by anyone to suspend evacuee flights," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "This situation arose as we started to run out of room."
The halt came one day after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist wrote a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, warning that "Florida's health care system is quickly reaching saturation, especially in the area of high level trauma care."
But officials in Crist's office said they didn't know of any Florida hospitals turning away patients. He asked Sebelius to activate the National Disaster Medical System, which is typically used in domestic disasters and pays for victims' care.
Poor coordination and limited resources, not costs, drove the governor's request, said John Cherry, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
"We've made it clear that (the cost) is an issue we'll deal with down the road," he said.
State health officials say some medical flights landed in Florida without any advance notice, and the poor coordination may be keeping some survivors from getting the help they need, Cherry said. He cited the case of a burn victim flown earlier this week into Tampa, which is not equipped to treat those injuries.
Dying of tetanus
Meanwhile on the ground in Haiti, Dr. Barth Green, a doctor involved in the relief effort in Port-au-Prince, warned that his patients needed to get to better hospitals.
"We have 100 critically ill patients who will die in the next day or two if we don't Medevac them," said Green, chairman of the University of Miami's Global Institute for Community Health and Development.
Civilian flights have not been stopped, but Green said he was relying on U.S. military flights to fly out patients because they are larger and better equipped to handle injured patients.
At a temporary field hospital at Haiti's international airport, set up with donations to Green's institute, two men had already died of tetanus. Doctors said 5-year-old Betina Joseph faced a similar fate within 24 hours unless she is evacuated to a U.S. hospital where she can be put on a respirator.
The girl — infected with tetanus through a two-inch cut on her thigh — weakly shooed a fly buzzing around her face as her mother caressed, apparently unaware that getting the girl out could mean life or death.
"If we can't save her by getting her out right away, we won't save her," said Dr. David Pitcher, one of 34 surgeons staffing the field hospital.
Trying to expand capacity
The White House said federal officials were working with other states and nongovernment aid groups in Haiti to expand hospital capacity so they can make more room for critically injured patients aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship anchored off the coast of Port-au-Prince.
There have already been 435 patients evacuated to the U.S., 18,500 patients treated by HHS personnel on the ground in Haiti, and 19,000 patients treated by the Comfort either on ship or on shore, with 635 patients currently on board the Comfort.
Captain Kevin Aandahl, spokesman for U.S. Transportation Command, said no evacuation requests have been made by U.S. military medical facilities in Haiti, including the Comfort, since the flights were suspended Wednesday.
U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, said he did not know who ordered a stop to the evacuations but said it is a problem that should be fixed.
"I'm sure the Department of Defense wants to do the right thing, as do we," he said Saturday in a conference call. "Look, everybody is here working on the ground trying to do the right thing for as many people as possible."