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January 8, 2020
Contact: HHS Press Office
[email protected]

HHS Secretary Azar Declares Public Health Emergency for Puerto Rico Following Earthquakes

A series of earthquakes and aftershocks in Puerto Rico this week prompted Health and Human Services Secretary Alex. M. Azar II to declare a public health emergency for the U.S. territory.

In declaring the public health emergency and authorizing flexibilities for CMS beneficiaries, Secretary Azar acted within his authority under the Public Health Service Act and Social Security Act. These actions and flexibilities are retroactive to Dec. 28, 2019.

“We are concerned about potential impacts of this week’s earthquakes on the lives of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. Across HHS, we have worked closely with the territory’s health and human services authorities on disaster recovery, and will continue to do everything we can to help ensure the health and well-being of people across the island.”

Health care facilities in Puerto Rico will have the flexibility to ensure that sufficient health care and services are available to meet the needs of individuals enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Assets are available to quickly assist health authorities and healthcare facilities respond to medical needs if needed, including medical teams from the National Disaster Medical System and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, along with their equipment and supplies.

To assist residents in the impacted area in coping with the stress, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration activated the Disaster Distress Helpline. The helpline provides immediate 24/7, 365-days-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions after a disaster. Residents in Puerto Rico can call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 (for Spanish, press 2 or text Hablanos to 66746) to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

During a public health emergency, the Secretary may waive sanctions and penalties against a covered hospital that does not comply with certain provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. The Secretary’s waiver only applies in the following instances: (1) in the emergency area and for the emergency period identified in the public health emergency declaration; (2) to hospitals that have instituted a disaster protocol; and (3) for up to 72 hours from the time the hospital implements its disaster protocol.  Visit the HHS Office for Civil Rights for more information on HIPAA and Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Recent natural disasters have demonstrated the importance of ensuring accessibility to health and human services for everyone living in the United States, including individuals in need of interpretation and translation services. HHS’s Office for Civil Rights led efforts by the HHS Language Access Steering Committee to develop a plain language checklist to help first responders provide services during emergency response and recovery in accordance with federal civil rights laws. The checklist includes recommendations, specific action steps, and resources to assist first responders in providing on-the-ground language assistance and communicating effectively in disasters. Practical tips range from how to identify language needs in a disaster-impacted community to effectively utilizing interpreters.

HHS’ U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also actively responding to the situation in Puerto Rico. The agency has made outreach to its Puerto Rico office and is receiving the latest updates on the status of the FDA’s staff, facilities, and regulated industry. At this time, the FDA has not become aware of any potential shortages of critical medical products. The FDA will continue to be in communication with its staff as well as regulated industry on the island. 

Information on disaster health and HHS actions is available on www.phe.gov/emergency.

Note: All HHS press releases, fact sheets and other news materials are available at https://www.hhs.gov/news.
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Last revised: January 8, 2020

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