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Puerto Rico Faces Critical Drug Shortage as Walgreens Restores Service

The damage caused by Hurricane Maria has crippled Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry, leading to critical shortages of certain drugs and medical devices.

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico — Brenda Figueroa, 29, a lawyer in Puerto Rico isn’t representing clients in court today — she is one of hundreds waiting on a long line at Walgreens Sunday, hoping for a refill on her grandmother’s blood pressure prescription, treatment she desperately needs.

In towns like Caguas, just forty minutes southeast of San Juan, cell phone and internet coverage still have not been restored. Medication is in short supply and residents are waiting anxiously for medical care.

Related: Famed Puerto Rican Beach Town Desperate for Medical Help

“I’ve been to three Walgreens. I’ve been turned away twice. They say they don’t have the systems, so ... they won’t dispatch these medications,” said Figueroa, who has patiently waited hours for the life-saving medication.

Dr. John Torres, NBC News Medical Corresopondent, treats a wound on Ana Maria Ortiz's foot. The Puerto Rican native has been waiting to see a doctor since Hurricane Maria hit 14 days ago.
Dr. John Torres, NBC News Medical Corresopondent, treats a wound on Ana Maria Ortiz's foot. The Puerto Rican native has been waiting to see a doctor since Hurricane Maria hit 14 days ago.Lauren Dunn

The “system” Figueroa is referring to is the computer authentication program needed to verify her grandmother’s prescription. As of Tuesday, only 76 of the 120 Walgreen pharmacies across the island are open, many on a limited basis and powered by generators.

On Monday, the pharmacy chain said in a statement that “many of our open stores have network connectivity via the internet because those connections are separate from phone or cell service”, but later noted that “some select locations may have systems that are impacted intermittently by the ongoing power and connectivity issues.”

“Puerto Ricans always help Puerto Ricans, we’ll get back on our feet soon.”

In Caguas, temporary pharmacy services are being set up and disaster relief organizations such as Heart to Heart International are working with local authorities to get medication to the most vulnerable: anti-rejection drugs to prevent organ failure in transplant patients and daily blood pressure medications for the elderly. Heart to Heart has 18 volunteer doctor, nurses, and administrators from around the U.S. and has been in Puerto Rico for 10 days.

Related: Hurricane Maria Leaves Puerto Rico Facing Months Without Power

“Getting medication is a big challenge,” said Susan Mangicaro, executive director of global response for Heart to Heart International.

Local pharmacies have been ordered by the Secretary of Health to provide medication for all uninsured patients, Mangicaro said, although some patients are reporting problems with getting their prescriptions filled. "Medical emergencies become crises without access to medication,” said Mangicaro, acknowledging that difficulty in communication, especially in mountainous regions, has hampered the response time for medical care. "But we’re beginning to see our efforts fall into place."

Related: FEMA Chief Brock Long Says Puerto Rico Relief ‘Most Logistically Challenging Event’ U.S. Has Ever Seen

For Brenda Figueroa, a positive outlook and a healthy perspective have helped her survive the dire aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

“I know it’s a difficult situation, it’s difficult for everybody, so you know, we just have to work with what we have right now and hopefully soon we will get what we need,” said Figueroa. “Puerto Ricans always help Puerto Ricans. We’ll get back on our feet soon.”

NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres reported from Caguas, Puerto Rico; NBC News medical fellow Shamard Charles, M.D. is in New York