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Americans turned away from Virginia hospitals over Afghan evacuees

Hospital doctors and nurses. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times/TNS)
September 10, 2021

A massive influx of Afghan evacuees strained Northern Virginia hospitals so much this week that American citizens were being turned away.

A hospital near Dulles Expo Center has been running out of beds, forcing the facility to turn away non-Afghan patients who didn’t need critical care, according to The Washington Post. The overwhelmed hospital system prompted a regional emergency response group to monitor the hospitals after one became so packed with patients that federal officials lost track of a number of Afghans receiving medical care, including a month-old child suffering from a possibly life-threatening condition.

Kristin Nickerson, executive director of the Northern Virginia Emergency Response System, said the child was later located in one of the hospitals. Nickerson, who also directs the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance, confirmed that another hospital was forced to turn away American patients.

“Our hospitals are already almost at capacity,” she said, referring to patients with COVID-19. “It’s not like they have tons of free beds available. We are still in the middle of a pandemic.”

Nickerson said federal officials have not been responsive to requests for financial help. The Washington Post reported that a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said questions should be presented to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to several attempts seeking comment.

The offices of both Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner said they are aware of and monitoring the situation.

“Senator Warner will continue to do everything he can to ensure that Virginia’s hospitals — many of which are already strained with covid-19 patients — have the resources they need to care for our communities,” a spokeswoman for Warner said in a statement.

Nickerson further explained that a federal contractor which was supposed to retrieve Afghan evacuees after their hospital visits has left them in the facilities for up to six hours. Cherokee Federal, the contractor in question, did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.

“This was terrible for the refugees who have already traveled for days, who have been awake for days, who have children who, often, haven’t eaten in days,” Nickerson said.

As Afghan evacuees continue to arrive, the cost to care for them continues to rise. On Aug. 28, top local administrators, who make up the board of the Northern Virginia Emergency Response System group, sent a letter to Virginia’s secretary of health and human services, calling for federal and state dollars to be allocated for the ongoing effort.

“To meet the current need, we are leveraging what little resources we have to augment the existing team at the moment, but this is not sustainable with only a staff of 12,” the letter said.

J. Stephen Jones, chief executive of the Inova Health System, said the hospitals shouldn’t expect the impact of the Afghan crisis to end any time soon.

“These are real human beings and taking care of people is complex,” Jones said. “These folks have had their lives disrupted, and everything we can do to coordinate that care will be in their interest and in our community’s best interest.”