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MSDH aids in Virgin Islands disaster relief effort

Jim Craig, Director of Health Protection for the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), recently returned from six weeks in the U.S. Virgin Islands helping with hospital recovery efforts following hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall.

The category 5 storms ravaged the islands and destroyed healthcare facilities in St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. Hospitals on St. Croix and St. Thomas were damaged and the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center on St. John was left unusable.

Craig was requested by the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health (USVI DOH) to assist with a 44-day recovery assignment as part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), the nation’s state-to-state mutual aid agreement. This compact establishes a national framework that allows resources to be sent across state lines following disasters. All 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are EMAC members.

Craig was asked to serve as a subject matter expert in establishing temporary medical facilities to support the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health and U.S. Virgin Islands Healthcare Facilities. Craig mentioned that they had to bring in temporary mobile operating rooms, temporary mobile dialysis units, and a temporary modular hospital to support operations at St. Croix’s only hospital. Craig noted that the lack of services can cause issues which is magnified when there is just one hospital.

“On an island that has just one hospital, if a patient’s needs exceed the hospital’s capabilities – surgery, for instance – then the patient must be flown to another island. It’s not like riding down the road in an ambulance to the next available facility,” he said.

Craig worked to ensure the continuation of the “Emergency Prescription Assistance Program”, which allows those with prescriptions to continue to receive them even if they had been displaced by the storm.

In addition, the USVI DOH office suffered roof damage, and torrential rains flooded the facility. Craig worked with the team at USVI DOH to establish temporary shelters to assist with DOH clinic services.  Temporary modular structures are being planned for the office’s parking areas until repair or replacement of the Health Department can be accomplished.

In addition to damaged facilities, Craig stated that staffing issues exist across the islands, and nearly half of the employees that were there before the storm are no longer with the hospitals. An EMAC request has been made for 51 nurses to be brought to the island over the next eight months.

While recovery after any disaster is slow, Craig said the resources and knowledge supplied through EMAC is vital to the resilience of any community in helping it return to its pre-disaster state.

“We brought in incident management teams from Seattle and Vermont, food facility inspectors from Virginia to inspect all restaurants, and health recovery teams to begin planning long-term healthcare and public health services,” he said.

Just as other states contributed to Mississippi’s recovery following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Craig’s deployment gave him a firsthand view of what state-to-state disaster support could accomplish.

“I was blessed to lead the public health and medical response for the state of Mississippi during Katrina. With how much our coast and Mississippians were affected, we had people who came from just about every state in the union, either here or New Orleans, through EMAC and through other opportunities,” Craig said. “I think we owed everybody a little bit of payback, so it was great to have the opportunity to go back and assist another location that had a very catastrophic storm. I’m just glad the MSDH could provide some assistance.”

In addition to his time serving after Hurricane Katrina, Craig also assisted in the disaster relief efforts in Lousiville, Mississippi after tornados destroyed hospitals and nursing homes in the area.

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