Budget priorities are focus of Cabinet meeting; Health chief acknowledges lags in vaccination effort

By The Star Staff

A meeting of members of Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia’s cabinet on Monday focused mostly on ensuring money is available for certain priority spending as the island government must turn in the fiscal year 2021-2022 budget by Jan. 29.

The second meeting of cabinet members was led this time by La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Noelia García. At a news conference after the meeting, most of the questions had to do with the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination process.

Pierluisi wants to ensure the budget has enough funding to train staff, to hike the salaries for math and English teachers, to add Montessori schools to the public education system, to draft a classification plan for public workers and to digitalize services at government agencies, García said.

The budget also must include enough funding for the Transportation and Public Works Department to be able to repair island highways as well as the lighting along those highways, to deal with fee hikes in the public-private partnership agreement for the ferry service between the main island and Vieques and Culebra, to ensure diagnostic and treatment centers in island towns are open 24 hours and to ensure funding for project management.

The government also wants to ensure there is funding to repair infrastructure in towns damaged by the January 2020 earthquake and aftershocks, to repair police stations and to increase salaries of correctional officers.

García also said there was a plan to increase the hourly salaries for tomato pickers from $5 to $7.25. Because of the low wages, there are not enough workers to pick tomatoes.

200 vaccines damaged

Regarding the vaccination process, Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López said Puerto Rico has received 272,000 vaccines, of which 221,000 have been administered. The remaining vaccines are being used as second doses.

He said Puerto Rico receives 40,000 vaccines every week. Of those, 11,000 are directed to Walgreens and CVS to be administered to bedridden patients. Soon, they will be integrated into the vaccination phase that includes people 65 years of age and older.

“When the vaccination process began in Puerto Rico, there was talk that they could give us 300,000 vaccines. That did not happen due to some ‘issues’ from Pfizer and Moderna,” Mellado said. “To date, we have had 272,000 vaccines in Puerto Rico, of which 221,000 vaccines have been administered.”

The Health secretary said he received a letter from the transition committee of President-elect Joe Biden stating that the quantity of vaccines for Puerto Rico and the other states and territories will be increased. The amount of the increase was not mentioned.

In response to a question, Mellado acknowledged that because of improper handling, a vaccination center ended up discarding 40 vials with 200 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Moderna last week.

The Moderna vaccine, like Pfizer’s, must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. The Health did not reveal the name of the center that made the mistake.

“What happened was that when the person who received the vaccine box saw there was melted ice [on a box], what he did was put it back into the refrigerator and, certainly, the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], specifically in that case, gave the recommendation that we do not use this vaccine,” Mellado said. “But I must clarify, this is the only incident that Puerto Rico has had. Corrective action was taken. Work is being done at the CDC and at the Health Department level with the center. I would not like to say which center it is because they are doing a very good job and these are things that can happen, that have happened, and that managing a new vaccine is complicated. The handling of this vaccine is super complicated. In that regard, when the second dose comes, it has to be handled differently.”

Mellado revealed meanwhile that some 70 individuals have had reactions to the vaccine, which can trigger dozens of different types of reactions that go from a pain in the arm to serious effects that require hospitalization. He also said five COVID-19 tests were sent to the CDC to help determine, as suspected, that a mutation of the COVID-19 virus is present on the island.

As the vaccination of school workers gets underway on the island, designated Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos called on teachers to get vaccinated.

“Our call is that everyone who can get vaccinated do so,” Aponte Santos said. “There are some shifts that are being granted, but that they do it when they have the opportunity.”

Mellado said no date has been set for reopening schools for face-to-face classes, but the process should be a voluntary one.

“We also want to have a specific plan to open schools because if we analyze the COVID situation, we also have to analyze another point. The American Pediatric Association clearly establishes that there is depression among children due to the lack of social interaction in schools,” Mellado said. “We do not have clear and certain statistics on abuse. Teachers identify children’s problems. Teachers become an extremely important tool for the care of our youth and our children. In other words, that is a plan that the government has as a public policy and obviously, if you ask when are we going to open the schools, I can’t tell you.”

The Health secretary added that the government does not “have a specific date because we want to say that on that date that we have an established plan, which may vary due to all the variants that I have told you -- vaccination, statistics -- and what will be happening at that time when we are going to reopen the schools.”

“Number one, it has to be a gradual process, it has to be a voluntary process, parents have to be given the option of having face-to-face classes,” Mellado said. “If the parents do not want to [send their child to school], that is another story.”

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