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6/13/2001

Special Medical Teams Help Houston Flood Victims

Donna Young

Pharmacist Mark Gonitzke holds a phone in each hand. "I need tetanus. Can you get me about 500 doses?" he asks in a calm, but urgent, tone.

Gonitzke is waiting to get calls from AmeriSource Health Corp. of Valley Forge, Pa., the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) central supply center in Perry Point, Md.

Gonitzke is in Houston helping to support health and medical volunteers who are providing care for ill and injured flood victims of Tropical Storm Allison.

Houston’s Immunization Bureau and the Texas Department of Health helped Gonitzke find some tetanus toxoid, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the drug has been in short supply since last fall.

"Finding the necessary drugs has gone relatively smoothly so far under the circumstances," Gonitzke said.

More than 10,000 Houston families have been displaced due to Allison, according to HHS.

The storm struck the Texas coast on June 5 and has caused severe flooding that damaged more than 3,000 Houston homes and businesses. HHS reported that, as of yesterday, there have been 21 confirmed storm-related deaths as a result of Allison. Because of flooding, two local hospitals closed down completely while other hospitals relied for several days on generators for power.

President Bush issued a federal disaster declaration on June 9. Gonitzke was in Houston by June 10.

"We started calling teams on Saturday and moving them out on Sunday," Gonitzke said. "I was on the plane by 6 a.m."

Gonitzke is a commissioned officer with HHS’s Public Health Service, Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP), in Rockville, Md.

OEP is responsible for managing and coordinating federal health, medical, and health-related social services and recovery for major emergencies and federally declared disasters such as natural disasters, technological disasters, major transportation accidents, and terrorism attacks.

The agency also directs and manages the National Disaster Medical System, a cooperative asset-sharing partnership among HHS, VA, the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local governments, private businesses, and civilian volunteers.

Gonitzke is a member of OEP’s management support team and is responsible for obtaining medical supplies, equipment, and pharmaceuticals for the disaster medical assistance teams (DMATs).

DMATs are groups of medical and support volunteers who provide emergency medical care during disasters or other events.

Each team has a sponsoring organization, such as a major medical center, a public health or safety agency, or a nonprofit, public, or private organization. The DMAT’s sponsor organizes the team and recruits members, arranges training, and coordinates the dispatch of the team.

Arkansas DMATFour teams from New Mexico, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma were dispatched to Houston, according to HHS. Volunteers from Texas-based DMATs also stepped in to help Houston flood victims. And a DMAT pharmacist from Georgia, Amanda Miller, filled an open spot on the North Carolina team. In addition, DMAT communications support staff from California, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey answered Houston’s call for help.

The teams have been staffing three temporary 24-hour ambulatory care clinics located at the Astrodome, the Houston Police Academy in the northern part of the city, and Houston’s Grayson Center on the city’s eastside.

"The teams have to hit the disaster running," Gonitzke said.

DMATs provide acute care for minor injuries, as well as triage to prepare patients for evacuation to hospital facilities.

"They help take some of the load off the hospitals," Gonitzke said.

At least three DMAT teams from various locations around the country are scheduled to be on-call each month, he said.

Gonitzke said there are pharmacists, physicians, nurses, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians on each team.

"Even with the pharmacist shortage, most employers are willing to let team members go when they are called," he said.

Gonitzke said there are specialized DMAT teams that deal with specific medical conditions such as burns, as well as veterinary and mortuary services. There is also a special team in Massachusetts trained to deal with terrorism attacks, he said.

Special teams are also assembled to attend major events such as the Olympics, the presidential inauguration, and political conventions in case an emergency or disaster occurs.