Creation of a municipal public health office proposed

By John McPhaul

Puerto Rico’s experience with the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid and effective action taken by the municipalities in the face of the crisis, has led Rep. Juan José Santiago Nieves to propose a bill to establish, on a permanent basis, a Municipal Office of Public Health and Epidemiology that would serve all island municipalities.

The proposal was made Wednesday morning at the headquarters of the Mayors Association of Puerto Rico, along with mayors, municipal epidemiologists and Rep. Sol Higgins, who chairs the Health Committee in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. The initiative is of particular importance given the advance of COVID-19 and the delta variant, the proponents said.

“The purpose of this measure is to be able to ensure that municipal governments, which are the closest to the people, are qualified and trained to handle public health crises such as pandemics, and at this time the vaccination process to be able to achieve the much-desired herd immunity,” said Santiago Nieves, chairman of the House Municipal Affairs Committee.

The measure indicates that the case of the Villalba municipality and its handling of the pandemic has served as an example to the rest of the island.

“That experience must serve permanently. Although there are plenty of examples of eagerness, dedication, and leadership from the experience of the municipality of Villalba, the success of the Municipal System for Case Investigation and Contact Tracing (SMICRC) shows that the experience [there] was not the result of good fortune or chance, but rather rigorous implementation of public health protocols,” Santiago Nieves said. “This bill is the product of conversations with mayors and health personnel.”

The measure also notes that in May 2020, the commonwealth Department of Health decided to support the dissemination of the municipal model and that despite the gaps created by austerity policies against the municipalities, these entities “have demonstrated a unique capacity to respond quickly and effectively and to stand out as the main providers of emergency services, relief and citizen assistance.”

Mayors Association President Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz gave the go-ahead to the measure and pointed out that “the municipalities have been a key part of the vaccination process in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, being the ones that have allowed the state to reach each of the communities to get citizens vaccinated.”

“The municipalities have proven to be promoters of many of the solutions to the problems that the state faces. You just need the necessary tools.”

Hernández Ortiz also censured the statements of the island Department of Health’s director of epidemiology, Dr. José Becerra, who on Tuesday, he said, questioned the work of the municipal epidemiology offices and the definition of what an outbreak is.

“There is an intention to dismantle the municipal offices and Dr. Becerra must provide explanations,” Hernández Ortiz said.

Santiago Nieves’ bill will be filed in August at the beginning of the next legislative session, “and we hope that it will be a cause for debate, either to improve it, or to receive statements for and against,” the legislator said. “I am convinced that this is a good bill to promote quality of life and health among our population.”

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