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Hurricane Sandy's Health Woes Continue

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 29, 2012 -- The prolonged recovery from Hurricane Sandy is continuing to take a mental and physical toll on residents of the East Coast who are still cleaning up flood, fire, and wind damage.

In the hard-hit coastal communities of Queens, N.Y., residents have dubbed their deep hacking "Rockaway cough" or "Sandy cough."

Doctors manning mobile medical units report widespread problems with wounds -- cuts and scrapes people get from hidden nails or surprise shards of broken glass and metal as they try to haul out soggy sheetrock, insulation, and carpeting.

And health officials say they fear they will see more cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.

"There's still many thousands of people who we believe are living without heat," says Dan Kass, MSPH, deputy commissioner of environmental health for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "We get really concerned about people resorting to desperate measures to stay warm. Turning on gas stoves, gas burners to stay warm, and using generators indoors," he says.

Electric generators churn out carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas. Carbon monoxide easily replaces oxygen in the blood. People can quickly be overcome if a generator is used indoors or in an attached garage.

On Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned landlords of storm-damaged buildings to take immediate action to restore heat and electricity. New York City has established a Rapid Repairs program to help homeowners and landlords who don't have finances to begin repairs on their own. Health officials are urging people to sign up for the program on the city's web site. They also advise all residents living in cold buildings to find temporary shelter.

Medical Care in Short Supply

Many medical offices in hard hit areas are still closed after flooding, leaving residents without access to the prescription medications they need to manage chronic breathing problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and allergies.

These problems coupled with the mold that's begun to bloom on wet walls and floors have left many people breathless and wheezing.

"They really haven't been able to see their doctors," says Maria T. Carney, MD. Carney is the director of community-based geriatrics at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. She's coordinating a free medical van that's bringing care to the Rockaway and Long Beach communities in New York.

While they can deliver some kinds of urgent care on the spot, in more severe cases, "we're really triaging people who maybe need to see a specialist or go to the hospital," she says.

Carney says they're treating about 30 patients a day. Typical injuries have ranged from athlete's foot (a fungal infection that thrives on wet skin), to coughs and colds, to deep cuts that need stitches and tetanus shots.

And Carney advises people who are due for a tetanus booster to go for the combination Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough).

Before the storm, the region was already experiencing a spike in whooping cough.

"So the combination shot will help prevent both infections," she says.

The coughing many people are now experiencing is probably caused by a convergence of problems, Carney says.

She notes that the Northeast is seeing a regular seasonal uptick in upper respiratory infections and flu-like illnesses. The stress and anxiety of weeks without basic necessities cripples the body's ability to fend off germs.

Breathing Problems

In addition, people are getting sick as they try to clean up ruined rooms.

"They may be in basements pulling down drywall, pulling out insulation, pulling up rugs, and this is affecting breathing because dust and fibers get generated up," Carney says.

To help prevent breathing problems during cleanup, Kass says health departments are distributing thousands of free N95 masks.

"If you're doing work, wear a mask. Take breaks, go outside, and get some fresh air if you're in an enclosed space. If you're feeling symptoms of respiratory distress, stop what you're doing and get to another environment," Carney says.

In some cases, residents are trying to tackle jobs that are simply too big to take on alone.

"If a job seems too big, it is," Kass says. "Going forward, there will be homes that have very substantial mold problems. And some of that can be cleaned up by individuals, but others will require professional help," he says.

SOURCES: Maria T. Carney, MD, director of community-based geriatrics, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Great Neck, N.Y. Dan Kass, MSPH, deputy commissioner of environmental health, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

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