• The San Juan Daily Star

Epidemiologist: Health, Education departments must team up to prevent virus outbreaks in schools

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

As public school students are expected to return to school for in-person instruction on Wednesday amid a COVID-19 case and hospitalization rebound, after a two-day delay necessitated by the arrival of Tropical Storm Grace, a public health expert is urging school principals to strengthen preventative measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus and avoid the shutting down of schools.

Clinical epidemiologist Roberta Lugo Robles told the STAR on Sunday that although the Education Department has an extensive and complete protocol designed to enforce risk infection control inside classrooms, she noted that it was important to educate children on wearing face masks properly and keeping distance from each other because “the delta variant is the dominant variant in the new COVID cases, and this one is more contagious.”

“Whenever you’re opening schools back up, infection risk will increase; therefore, more infections and outbreaks will happen,” she said. “What matters here is that those municipal surveillance systems remain active in detecting cases. It is also important for [people with confirmed cases] to be under quarantine.”

“What remains on the part of the Department of Education is to work hand in hand with the Department of Health to be able to identify outbreaks and infections in time, to be able to control them, and only have to close a classroom and not an entire school,” Lugo Robles added. “So it is important that this health authority identifies these infections in time and avoids exposing children and teachers.”

She also urged schools to improve the ventilation systems inside classrooms to further reduce coronavirus infection risks and safeguard in-person instruction.

However, late last week the Financial Oversight and Management Board rejected a $36.4 million purchase order at the Department of Education for 28,000 air purifiers that were not approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to irregularities in the request proposal.

Meanwhile, Lugo Robles said that even if the Health Department has its surveillance system, it is important that the agency appoint more than a seasoned principal epidemiological officer [PEO].

“It should be a leader who knows how to listen,” she said.

That statement came five days after Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López dismissed PEO José Becerra from his post due to provocative comments made in a blog against a journalist who reported the pausing since May of COVID-19 screenings at island long-term care centers.

“[The PEO] should be a proactive leader, someone who is capable of educating and training their staff, along with providing the tools for young workers, who consist of epidemiologists who are starting their professional career,” Lugo Robles said. “We know there are always limitations, but we must also seek to identify tools that allow us to improve the current deficiencies in our system.”

“This surveillance system is new, and new personnel require experience and continuous training as we know that the pandemic is ever-changing; the virus evolves and, therefore, preventative measures evolve, along with education,” the clinical epidemiologist added.

She added that the Department of Health must continue acquiring resources that allow its surveillance systems to work properly as “Puerto Rico depends on this infrastructure to identify cases, perform contact tracing and identify outbreaks on time.”

Coming changes in Surveillance System

Also last Tuesday, Mellado López told The STAR that the agency will be announcing a new PEO later in the week, along with other epidemiologists who will work on improving the department’s COVID-19 surveillance system.

He gave assurances that the agency is continuing to work with regional and municipal epidemiologists, along with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to report on recent COVID numbers.

“We have the same demographers, the same people doing the job; so we don’t have any problems there,” Mellado López said later in the week .

When the STAR asked if the agency is working to improve communications with municipal epidemiologists and the press after Becerra ordered the epidemiologists not to speak to the media without his approval, the Health chief said his order “was that if they were to speak [with the press], they would be completely informed.”

“What we want to strive for is for the information to be complete, because what people want to know is if they are positive [for COVID], who is vaccinated, who is not,” Mellado López said.

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