For the past three years, Direct Relief Puerto Rico has positioned itself as an invaluable nonprofit organization dedicated to bolstering the island’s emergency response, as well as improving citizens’ access to healthcare and overall well-being in local communities.
Following the devastating passage of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2017, parent organization - Direct Relief - opened a division in Puerto Rico in early 2018, where it has since allocated both human and financial resources to bolster the island’s recovery process and make it better equipped to mitigate the impact of future disasters and emergencies, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Ivonne Rodríguez-Wiewall, the executive advisor of Direct Relief PR, held an exclusive interview with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL to discuss past and current initiatives overseen by the organization, as well as innovative projects under development that seek to amplify the entity’s mission of safeguarding human life and facilitating access to medical services.
“The strength of Direct Relief as an international organization is the distribution and logistics of medicine and medical equipment at the time of an emergency; we are doing it in over 100 countries around the world. What happened in Puerto Rico is that after Hurricane Maria - and thanks to the funds we received from AbbVie, which gave us $50 million in cash, $1 million from Amgen, the pharmaceutical company and other private donations - we were able to go to Puerto Rico, where we were able to develop several programs that went beyond the distribution of medicine,” Rodríguez explained.
For instance, an assessment of the situation islandwide concluded that part of the problems linked to limited access to healthcare and medical services was the collapse of the electricity grid, which in turn affected the telecommunications industry. As such, Direct Relief PR took on a more encompassing approach, such as collaborating with local nonprofits to install solar panels on health clinics so they may run on renewable energy should the grid collapse again.
Focus on Primary Healthcare
Moreover, Puerto Rico Primary Health Centers, also known as Centers 330, operate 115 clinics, including mobile units and school spaces, throughout 67 municipalities. In these centers, patients receive primary and preventive health services.
During the past three years, Direct Relief has provided funds to the centers for various projects such as telemedicine, mobile units, structural improvements and the implementation of special health programs.
“This was a success during COVID because there were many patients who could continue receiving this service, especially when they have chronic conditions. We also provided [healthcare] access with the donation of mobile units and all-terrain vehicles. To date, we have donated 45 of those vehicles,” the executive advisor stated, adding that “with COVID, this has been very important because the mobile units are being used as vaccination centers."
“As for the Centers 330, which are our largest partners, we are also working on communications. That is one of the things we learned from Maria, that communications failed as well. Now we are working on projects that give them the ease of being interconnected in case of an emergency. We are buying radios for them to be interconnected in case of a future emergency. Going forward, we are also looking for a way to see how a call center can be established because they are receiving so many calls with the COVID emergency… and, we are looking for ways to help them provide services to patients,” she reported.
The initial purchase of these radios, excluding maintenance and the network connection, is roughly $350,000.
Close Monitoring is Key
In the current round of distributions, the local division has assigned $12.5 million in cash grants to roughly 55 organizations, including health clinics.
After a request has been approved and the applicant receives the first allocation, it must submit periodic reports to measure the efficacy and impact of the project’s implementation before receiving further disbursements. The local team then collects all reports, summarizes them and sends them to headquarters in Santa Barbara, Calif., to measure the cost-effectiveness of operations. To date, Direct Relief PR has overseen over 400 projects.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked Rodríguez how Puerto Rico’s emergency response has improved since Direct Relief established itself on the island.
“Our primary health centers are definitely much more prepared because they are better equipped now than they were four years ago before Maria. It was demonstrated with earthquakes when they were able to respond with mobile units; with COVID, they had the refrigerators ready and had the facility to store the COVID vaccines. I think there is much more communication and at the same time, that makes collaboration easier,” she affirmed.
Provide health services and items to medical personnel and vulnerable communities
Direct Relief PR is also working on transforming Puerto Rico into an emergency response hub for the Caribbean region. For example, the team was able to provide assistance to Haiti following the deadly earthquake last August, the first time the island’s division responded to another country’s plight. The goal, she said, is to “have facilities here in Puerto Rico... for us to have in a warehouse the medicine, medical equipment, everything that is needed at the time of responding to an emergency.”
Rodríguez underscored the entity's longstanding partnership with AbbVie, whose $50 million donation in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria made many of these projects possible.
“AbbVie, joined longtime nonprofit partner Direct Relief in its works to contribute to improving the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We are very proud of the work done by Direct Relief on the Island, specially on the data entry efforts related to the COVID-19 vaccination activities. We are committed to providing support to our local communities, and that includes providing helping hands in Puerto Rico,” expressed Annette Rodríguez, AbbVie Communication Manager.
- A shorter version of this story was published on the Sept. 29, 2021 edition of The Weekly Journal.