Afghan Crisis Wreaked Havoc on Northern Virginia Hospitals Due to Lack of Federal Planning, Local Officials Say
Antonio Olivo, Washington Post, September 7, 2021
The mass arrival of Afghan evacuees last month, many in need of medical care, wreaked havoc on Northern Virginia’s hospital system — prompting a regional emergency response group to assume oversight after one hospital became overwhelmed with patients and federal officials lost track of where some Afghans were hospitalized, officials said.
Area leaders have been asking the Biden administration to pay for the mounting cost of keeping track of the hospitalized evacuees and for giving them rides back to the Dulles Expo Center — where they have been temporarily housed — after a federal contractor took hours to retrieve some of the evacuees who were ready to be discharged.
One of the evacuees federal officials lost track of was a month-old child with a potentially life-threatening illness, said Kristin Nickerson, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Emergency Response System, which coordinates the region’s response during mass-casualty events. The infant was later found, still hospitalized, through a patient-tracking system that her group implemented, she said.
In another case, a hospital near the Dulles Expo Center that federal officials designated as a go-to spot for medical treatment began running out of available beds, forcing the hospital to turn away non-Afghan patients who weren’t in need of critical care, said Nickerson, who also directs the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance and declined to name the hospital.
“Our hospitals are already almost at capacity,” she said, referring to the recent surge in coronavirus cases. “It’s not like they have tons of free beds available. We are still in the middle of a pandemic.”
Nickerson and other local officials said federal officials so far have not been very responsive to pleas for financial help.
Nickerson said the organization — established nearly 20 years ago in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — receives about $9 million in federal funds per year to coordinate a regional response to other emergencies, including the coronavirus pandemic and extreme weather events.
“We normally wouldn’t be part of a refugee response effort,” she said.
The financial burden has also fallen on the surrounding localities, officials said.
Fairfax County Executive Bryan J. Hill said his county has transported 219 Afghan patients to area hospitals as of Tuesday. County employees have also kept track of those patients and reunited them with their families — at an estimated total cost of $300,000 so far that the county plans to bill to the federal government.
By the end of the week, several dozen flights carrying Afghan evacuees are scheduled to arrive at Dulles from countries where they have been living in refugee sites, Jones noted.