COVID-19 transmission rate in PR reaches numbers ‘we haven’t seen before’ says public health expert
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
As Puerto Rico remains on edge over rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations of both adults and pediatric patients, and fatalities in the midst of the Puerto Rico Health Department’s efforts to inoculate the population against the coronavirus,the executive director of the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) told the STAR on Thursday that the island’s reproduction number, or R0 (pronounced R naught), “is up to 1.9 or 2.0.”
During an exclusive online interview with the newspaper, Dr. José Rodriguez Orengo confirmed that this means that at least two people could have a higher risk of infection with the coronavirus per one active case.
Rodríguez Orengo further explained that the R0 was the parameter used in the United Kingdom to study if the B.1.1.7 variant was highly transmissible among the population. Earlier studies had claimed that the reproduction number in the south of England increased up to 1.5.
“We are seeing numbers that we haven’t seen before in Puerto Rico in this pandemic,” Rodríguez Orengo said. “We should be aware of this and make sure that we use all the protective wear and measures that we have applied to or told the community to engage with, such as using face masks, physical distancing of more than six feet, staying away from crowds and using sanitizers or soap to wash your hands.”
According to the website gov.uk, a United Kingdom public sector website created by the Government Digital Service, England’s Department of Health and Social Care and the Scientific Advisory Group of Emergencies, reported that the latest R0 for England is between 0.7 and 1.0.
However, with information updated on April 16, the website said that “an R-value between 0.7 and 1.0 means that, on average, every 10 people infected will infect between seven to 10 other people.”
“These estimates represent the transmission of COVID-19 2 to 3 weeks ago, due to the time delay between someone being infected, developing symptoms, and needing healthcare,” according to the website.
Meanwhile, with politicians suggesting a lockdown to mitigate the increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Rodríguez Orengo said discussions with epidemiologists and the study of daily reported numbers continue.
He added that current data from the Puerto Rico Health Department show that, according to a model used by the institution to detect the coronavirus positivity level, the island remains “in the orange category,” which means a “substantial” positivity rate.
“We haven’t gone to the red [category], which is when we would tell the government to have a lockdown,” the PRPHT chief said.
All the same, he told the STAR, with the numbers that the island is reporting, “we are at a high transmissibility of the virus.”
“But still, there is still some space for us to make changes in our behavior in order for us to decrease the number of people who are infected and return to the numbers that were reported back in February,” Rodríguez Orengo said. “From the beginning of the year, we were going in the right direction, lowering the numbers that we have been tracking since the beginning of the pandemic.”
As for those earlier numbers, Rodríguez Orengo said “the number of active cases went down from basically more than 200 down to 83.”
“That was a very good trend that we were looking for, and in addition to the positive rate that we had, that it was around 8 percent, it came down to 3.11%. We were almost touching the mark of 3%. That is a very good number that indicates that we were controlling the pandemic,” he said. “However, after the first week of March, we have been increasing slowly with the number of individuals that have been infected, and maybe that was joined with the new variants that are here on the island, and the infectivity of these variants is much higher than we [anticipated based on existing] models for us to determine how many people were going to be infected.”
Rodríguez Orengo noted that the island currently has “420 active cases per 100,000 individuals.”
“That’s more than four times what we had,” he pointed out.
When the STAR asked if more stringent measures were required to mitigate the uptick in coronavirus infections the island continues to face, Rodríguez Orengo said hospitalization numbers are being watched closely as they are reaching numbers “similar to what we had in November and December of last year.”
“We see that the ages of the people who are going to the hospital are younger, maybe they might be able to cope more with the virus, although we have seen in the last three or four days an increase in fatalities that we are also very concerned about,” he said. “Therefore, with all that said, we are looking daily at all of these indicators.”
“If we believe that we need to go into lockdown, we won’t hesitate to tell the government and the public that we would do that,” he added.
Regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, Rodríguez Orengo told the STAR that even though some people might have a negative perception of the coronavirus vaccines, inoculations are working as data being gathered from the island and other parts of the world have proven that vulnerable populations, such as people who are 60 years and older, who have received COVID shots have not had to be hospitalized due to virus symptoms.
“I’m not saying that if you’re vaccinated, you won’t get infected,” he said. “There is a percentage of individuals who will get vaccines and they won’t be able to produce the antibodies.”
“In addition to that, what studies have shown is that if you get vaccinated, you won’t get the symptoms that will lead you to a hospital and eventually, it will prevent you from dying,” the public health expert added.
To watch the full interview, log on and follow The San Juan Daily Star Facebook page to watch Lunchtime with The STAR.