Jun 8, 2020 - Health

Doctors Without Borders aids U.S. health workers treating coronavirus

COVID-19 Testing & Telemedicine Mobile Clinics_Immokalee, Florida
Doctors Without Borders is assisting at this COVID-19 testing and telemedicine mobile clinic in Immokalee, Florida. In the zip code 34142, which includes Immokalee, there are 841 coronavirus cases as of June 6. Photo: Katie Irwin/MSF

Doctors Without Borders has again dispatched teams to the U.S., this time to help overstretched local authorities and charities deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: The humanitarian medical group usually works in conflict zones and impoverished countries affected by endemic disease. But some 50 of its staff are working in the U.S. to ease the stress COVID-19 has put on already underserved communities in New York, Florida, New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Puerto Rico, spokesperson Nico D'Auterive said.

Details: Known by its French acronym, MSF is not a registered medical organization in the U.S., so it's limited to providing advice and assisting with water, sanitation and infection prevention and control.

  • Teams were first dispatched to New York City in March, before expanding to other U.S. communities.

In New York City:

A mobile shower station in New York City. Coalition for the Homeless' Nortz said the nonprofit would not have been able to set up the showers without MSF's help.
A mobile shower station with soap and shampoo in New York City. Coalition for the Homeless' Shelly Nortz said the nonprofit would not have been able to set up the trailers without MSF's help. The groups are sharing the costs of running the sites. Photo: Michelle Mays/MSF
  • MSF is working with the Coalition for the Homeless, soup kitchens and residential housing groups to improve virus prevention and control for people who are homeless or housing insecure.
  • The groups are also distributing masks, sleeping bags, toiletry kits and clothing.
  • CFH spokeswoman Shelly Nortz told Axios the coronavirus lockdown has prevented access to public washing facilities. So the Coalition and MSF are running shower trailers in Midtown Manhattan and Harlem.
  • MSF provided 1,000 cellphones to ensure people can contact essential services. The CFH pays for the phone plans, Nortz said.

In Florida:

Testing and telemedicine mobile clinics in Immokalee, Florida. MSF was initially providing advice remotely before sending a team to Immokalee in April as the situation there worsened.
Testing and telemedicine mobile clinics primarily serve farmworkers in Immokalee. The community has seen an average of 24 new cases a day in the past few weeks, per Mother Jones. Photo: Katie Irwin/MSF
  • In the rural community of Immokalee, MSF is working with groups including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to provide health consultations and coronavirus testing to some 20,000 migrant farmworkers in mobile clinics.
  • Deemed essential, many farmworkers didn't have access to masks, hand-washing stations or coronavirus testing centers, D'Auterive said.
  • Most work seven days a week in this tomato-growing region and the nearest hospital is over 40 miles away in Naples.

In Puerto Rico:

The emergency room entrance of the Ashford Presbyterian Community Hospital where the first coronavirus patient on the island died earlier in the day in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 21
Ashford Presbyterian Community Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the first coronavirus patient on the island died on March 21. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images
  • Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, which struck in 2017, and the earthquakes earlier this year that displaced hundreds in the south.
  • MSF plans to set up mobile clinics on the island amid a personal protective equipment shortage.
  • "There's guidance at some of the hospitals that the workers are allowed one mask per week," D'Auterive said. "You would normally switch out every shift."

In New Mexico and the Navajo Nation:

Native Americans of the Navajo Nation pick up supplies on horses at a food bank set up at the Navajo Nation town of Casamero Lake in New Mexico on May 20
Native Americans of the Navajo Nation pick up supplies at a food bank in Casamero Lake, N.M. Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images
  • MSF dispatched a team of nine in April to help the Navajo Nation, which stretches across three states and has reported more than 5,700 cases as of June 5.
  • D'Auterive said some of the team is also working with the Pueblos north of Albuquerque.
  • "These are communities that are historically underfunded and under-resourced," she said.

What's next: MSF has committed to working in U.S. locations until the end of June, but could extend, particularly in Native American communities, D'Auterive said.

Of note: The only other time MSF has dispatched teams to the U.S. was in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

  • D'Auterive said during that deployment, MSF provided care (with a significantly smaller team) to more than 1,000 people in the New York City boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Go deeper