THE COLONIAL-ERA edifice of the Port-of-Spain General Hospital withstood Tuesday’s 6.9 tremor, but the earthquake still triggered a most confusing situation. Patients from two floors of the hospital’s central block were decanted on Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution” though there was no visible structural damage. Udecott chairman Noel Garcia said a report by structural engineers at the site on Wednesday found only superficial damage. He said there was no reason why the building could not be used.
At the same time, three previous reports from Aron Bush, PAHO and Lee Young and Partners have raised concerns and flagged risks. In a statement from the North West Regional Health Authority (NWRHA) late yesterday, all five floors have been cleared and there is presently no functional wards in that area. A total of 122 patients were relocated to Wards 1, 3, 15, 16 and 17 of the north block of the hospital. All elective surgeries will remain suspended until further advised.
When all is said and done, the question for the NWRHA and the State is this: is the building safe for use? Engineering is complex, but the answer to this question should be yes or no.
Experts in disaster preparedness will tell you the most important factor in dealing with an adverse event is the mental state of people involved. Being calm is crucial and could make the difference between life and death. The mixed signal sent through partial evacuation – even if done supposedly as a precaution – is unacceptable. It damages confidence in the integrity of the building and, therefore, increases the risk of fatalities in the event of a disaster.
Let Tuesday’s earthquake be a wake-up call. Forget plans. All the things that should be done in relation to the issues at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital need to be done. And done now.
In the first place, an independent assessment of the structure has to take place. The partial evacuation is an acknowledgment by the State that there may be a problem. Having so acknowledged that possibility what remains is action to determine, once and for all, if the building is unfit for purpose. Any study should include the consideration of relevant factors, including the need for the hospital to withstand a range of natural disasters, not just earthquakes.
At some stage, the public needs to be assured, in unequivocal terms, that the building is safe. Regardless of the outcome of any structural study, the burden on the hospital is already too high.
Built in the 1850s using local stone and imported brick, it today serves a catchment area that includes the densely populated east-west corridor and beyond. New facilities are coming on stream: a new hospital is being built in Arima. But there needs to be a clear timeline of implementation for measures to bolster the support. What is the status of plans for a new building on the site of the PoS General Hospital? Will there be a substantial upgrade of existing facilities?
As Tuesday proved, we cannot afford to demur on these matters.