SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Puerto Rico appeared to be sprinting to herd immunity this spring before people began lowering their security against COVID-19 and new variants began to spread across the United States.
Now, the rise in cases and hospitalizations has put medical experts at odds with the government, which is struggling to protect human health while trying to prevent an economic implosion on an island littered with hurricanes, earthquakes and a protracted financial crisis.
“The difficulty here is how to find a solution for Solomon … to enable people to work and be responsible, and also to maintain health as a priority,”
This is a delicate balance for an island that has imposed blockade and camouflage mandates before any U.S. state and has some of the strictest entry requirements from any U.S. jurisdiction – measures that helped control infections before the last jump.
In total, the country of 3.3 million people reports more than 115,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, more than 115,000 suspects and more than 2,000 deaths, with transmission rates rising in the last week of April to 28 cases per 100,000 people per day, compared to with 17 per 100,000 in the continental United States.
The pandemic triggered the second-largest economic downturn that Puerto Rico has seen since recordings began in 1980, according to Jose Carabalo, a Puerto Rican economist. The largest was caused by Hurricane Maria, which hit more than $ 100 billion in 2017, killing nearly 3,000 people as a result.
More than 30,000 jobs have been lost in the COVID-19 explosion and at least 1,400 businesses have been closed, Carabalo said, on an island where nearly 12 percent of its population has fled in the past decade and whose government is struggling with debt crunch. which led him to declare the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history in 2017.
“I was amazed at what the people of Puerto Rico had to endure,” Carabalo said.
Many of those who remain grieve for lost homes, jobs, businesses or loved ones.
Luis Angel Sanchez has two close friends in intensive care and lost his father and son to COVID-19 in April 2020 with an interval of less than two weeks. Sanchez is vaccinated in mid-March.
“The vaccine will not erase the scars or heal my broken heart,” he wrote on Facebook that day. “It will not bring my son back. He won’t bring my father back. They, along with the others who have succumbed to this monster, will not die in vain if we continue to do the right thing. “
Sanchez said people should be vigilant and called on the government to impose tougher sanctions on those who do not follow COVID-19 measures.
“It’s not over yet,” he said.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi opposed the tougher restrictions, saying another blockade would be too extreme and that things would continue to improve and the island could reach an immune herd by August: “The solution is vaccination.”
More than 2 million doses have been administered on the island, with a stable 55% receiving at least one shot and 27% two.
Although health authorities say they are relieved, very eager to get vaccinated, they note that some people who are not yet fully protected ignore restrictions that include more than a year of curfew.
This and the presence of at least seven variants of COVID-19 on the island are thought to contribute to the increase in cases. Another factor, experts say, is the drop in tests from an average of about 7,000 tests a day to 2,000, a trend that people blame for being fixed to get vaccinated.
The fight against COVID-19 is also complicated by the outflow of medical talent to the continental United States.
The number of doctors in Puerto Rico dropped to 9,000 from 14,000 in 2006, said Dr. Victor Ramos, a pediatrician and president of the island’s Association of Surgeons. Similar drops have been observed among nurses and technicians.
“Health professionals are exhausted and scarce,” said Daniel Colon-Ramos, who chairs a scientific coalition that advises the governor of Puerto Rico.
Ramos and other health experts say the governor should temporarily ban indoor eating, a measure imposed last year. Restaurants and other places are currently limited to 30% capacity, but officials say the limit is difficult to measure and questions whether it is being met at all.
This is a problem that the government and business owners have faced many times, with the industry insisting that it is safer to eat in an indoor restaurant, given all safety protocols, than in someone’s house.
Matteo Sidre, owner of four restaurants and bakeries, said the industry has not recovered since the nine weeks last year, in which restaurants could only deliver, transport or pick up curbs. He suffered heavy losses and applied for a suspension of payments for cars and homes.
He criticized the government for not further easing restrictions, even when there was a drop in cases.
“They have never been flexible with us,” he said. “It was a very tiring journey.”
Other industries have also been hit hard, with retail sales falling $ 2 billion last year, said Jorge Argueles, a former president of the Puerto Rican Retail Association.
Pressed by the restrictions, the governor should impose stricter restrictions on airports, where only about 30% of those arriving carry the required negative COVID-19 test. Several tourists have been arrested for assaulting authorities after refusing to follow health instructions.
The voluntary 14-day detention option was revoked on Wednesday, and those who do not take a negative test will receive a $ 300 fine if they do not present it within 48 hours. However, there is no system to fine them on arrival; it is up to people to voluntarily complete a document online later so that they can be fined.
“The thing I’m most worried about,” said Colon-Ramos, who heads the scientific council, “is to think that there are people alive today who can be saved or die, depending on the behavior of Puerto Ricans.”