Rius named as new Health secretary
Rius fills the void left by the abrupt resignation of Dr. Francisco Joglar, who stepped down last week following revelations of a bacteria outbreak at a local hospital. Joglar had also been under fire for the agency’s handling of rising dengue and flu tolls.
Rius, who has headed the Medical Services Administration (ASEM) since January, had been helming the Health Department on an interim basis since Joglar quit last week along with Assistant Health Secretary Brenda Mirabal, State Epidemiologist Haydée García and Joglar’s executive aides Rafael Acevedo and Lourdes Ruggler.
Rius has also served as a professor at the UPR School of Medicine and worked for more than two decades as an anesthesiologist at the Río Piedras Medical Center.
“She is one of those doctors who could have picked a more comfortable path but chose the public health system with an extraordinary commitment,” García Padilla said during a press conference at La Fortaleza.
“This is an honor,” Rius said. “My commitment is to the government and the people of Puerto Rico.”
The Cuban-born doctor thanked her family, who brought her to Puerto Rico in 1969.
“I am an immigrant from Cuba, and I am Cuban,” Rius said. “But I have long felt Puerto Rican.”
Rius, a member of the San Juan municipal assembly, initially said she would remain in the political position but said later Thursday she would quit the elected office to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
Her appointment as Health Department secretary is expected to win confirmation in the Popular Democratic Party-controlled Senate.
Rius will oversee an ongoing investigation into an outbreak of Acinetobacter baumannii at the intensive health care unit at the University of Puerto Rico Hospital in the San Juan suburb of Carolina.
Local Health Department officials say that at least 35 people were carrying the bacteria, and 10 of them died from May to July. Officials say that at least eight of those died from other causes.
A report by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) said more than five dozen patients from the ICU were carrying the bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii, 32 of whom have since died.
The island Health Department had said at least 10 patients in the unit who have since died were carrying the bacteria. Officials said eight of the patients did not die from the bacterial infection, but it’s unclear whether the bacteria caused the deaths of the other two.
The CDC report on the UPR Hospital signals that local health officials were aware of the outbreak since January, but didn’t reach out to the federal agency until mid-July.
Local health officials have blamed the presence of the bacteria on poor hygiene, saying an investigation found that medical personnel were not following basic procedures such as frequently washing their hands.
The bacteria usually occurs in intensive care units and is responsible for some 80 percent of reported infections, according to CDC.
Rius has said that the UPR Hospital would remain open while the shuttered ICU is renovated.
The island Health Department has assigned a team of epidemiologists headed by former Health Secretary Johnny Rullán to provide preventive oversight at the hospital and study the outbreak.
Rius said any potential sanctions would be on hold pending the team’s report in about a month.
The UPR Governing Board, meanwhile, also dispatched a team headed by Dr. Enrique Vicéns to conduct a parallel probe.
The Associated Press contributed this report.