WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 -- Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson declared the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks a public health emergency Wednesday, freeing the nation's medical disaster resources to help with the casualties.
"We have a long way to go, but we have begun the healing process in America," Thompson said. "We mobilized as soon as state and local officials let us know what they needed."
Thompson intends to head to New York City on Thursday to meet with Mayor Rudolph Guilani, he said.
The mobilization's first wave involved more than 600 medical specialists sent to New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania from various HHS departments, he said. More than 300 of those are part of Disaster Medical Assistance Teams -- doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians trained to deal with traumatic injuries. New York City has five DMATs assigned, a total of 211 workers from New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Washington has three DMATs, totaling 117 people from Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia.
A handful of epidemiologists, lab experts and technical assistance personnel were sent to New York City, Thompson said. The remaining members of the HHS team are mortuary specialists, trained in the safe removal of bodies from a disaster area, as well as the efficient identification of remains. New York City will have the services of four mortuary teams, totaling 169 workers, while Washington will get three teams and 102 personnel. An additional mortuary team is heading to the Pennsylvania site where the fourth hijacked plane crashed, he said.
If more medical workers are needed, there's plenty in reserve, Thompson said. He activated the National Disaster Medical System for the first time in its history, putting 80 teams of physicians on call to go where they're needed. Thompson also has put the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps on alert, with 800 officers ready for immediate deployment. The U.S. Navy hospital ship U.S.S. Comfort is available, he said.
Medical supplies are on their way, Thompson said. More than 80,000 bags of intravenous fluid and associated supplies, as well as more than 400 ventilators to assist breathing, are headed to New York City. The Centers for Disease Control have coordinated shipments of tetanus and tetanus-diphtheria vaccine direct from pharmaceutical companies to the city, he said.
"There have been concerns that there is not enough skin available for skin grafts to burn victims," Thompson said. "State and local health officials have old us that so far, there's an adequate supply. We've acted to put tissue banks on notice to help out if more skin is needed in the future."
As for the nation's blood supply, Thompson said it remains safe and adequate in the short term. He lauded the national response to calls for blood donations, saying the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., had to stop accepting donors at its blood center at noon Wednesday, as it had no more storage space.
Thompson urged people with "O" and rH-negative blood types to continue to schedule appointments for donation, as those types are always in high demand.
"I would like to assure everyone that, to our knowledge, no untested blood has been released to the public (supply)," Thompson said. The HHS Web site, hhs.gov, has been updated with blood donation information and other details on how the public can help, he said.
Other public health concerns in New York City include the threat of disease from buried bodies, as well as the breathing hazards posed by the dust coating lower Manhattan, Thompson said. CDC specialists in infectious diseases will monitor the area to catch any possible outbreaks, he said, although the main concern in this area is that rescue personnel protect themselves as they work. CDC personnel will also monitor air quality for the foreseeable future, especially for the risk of asbestos contamination from the remains of the World Trade Center.