• The San Juan Daily Star

‘Get vaccinated and mask up’

Public health experts urge citizens to use every safety measure to turn back COVID surge

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

As Puerto Rico and its government continue their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts on Sunday called for residents to continue taking every safety measure available to protect themselves and prevent others from spreading the disease and increasing the chances of new variants developing.

Although more than 2 million eligible island residents have completed the coronavirus vaccine phase, infectologist Ángeles Rodríguez told the STAR that until the world has access to a vaccine that can fully hold back transmission, citizens must cooperate in practicing more safety measures, such as using face masks and dodging crowded events, to prevent outbreaks from happening.

Rodríguez also said that aside from obtaining a vaccine that can fully block transmission of the coronavirus, reaching herd immunity could be possible when a more effective and strict contact tracing and case investigation system exists.

According to the Mayo Clinic, herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely.

“That is the greatest consequence you specifically face when you don’t have people vaccinated,” she said. “When the virus gets through to a body that is able to process it, this virus is capable of transforming into a different virus; therefore, we have the virus we know today as delta.”

“Community, or herd, immunity is a tool that can only be successful when you achieve building barriers against the virus,” she added. “No vaccine is 100% effective; therefore, we have to find every way possible for people to not have any contact with the virus.”

“I have always said it is wrong to maintain oversight on hospitalizations; we have to keep an eye on the virus itself, we have to keep an eye out for transmissions among communities, we have to seek the main sources of incoming cases and isolate them,” Rodríguez said. “At the moment you can put barriers between the virus and an able body, which can be any kind of body, you can limit the virus from existing.”

The epidemiologist made her statements after Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López told El Nuevo Día that “we can no longer talk about herd immunity” as the arrival of the delta variant “killed the whole herd immunity theory.”

Nonetheless, Puerto Rico Public Health Trust Executive Director José Rodríguez Orengo clarified to the STAR that the battle to reach herd immunity carries on; however, he added, the percentage of vaccinated people needed to reach herd immunity has changed.

After the death last week of veteran TV news reporter Efrén Arroyo, who died due to COVID-19 complications, his family confirmed on Saturday, Rodríguez Orengo urged islanders to get vaccinated to increase their chances of surviving exposure to the coronavirus and the delta variant.

According to Arroyo’s family, the 68-year-old journalist was unvaccinated against the coronavirus and had remained isolated at his home for two weeks due to what he believed were cold symptoms.

“Many people keep dying here; I see four and five people dying per day, and I ask myself what’s going on,” said Rodríguez Orengo, a member of the Puerto Rico Scientific Coalition. “I have always said it -- if we had the same number of deaths due to people being murdered as we have due to COVID, we would be outraged. This is concerning. We have gotten used to seeing so many COVID deaths; it looks like our sensitivity has decreased.”

“If you look at the data the Scientific Coalition has uploaded, you get to see that vaccines clearly have a positive effect on preventing hospitalizations and preventing people from dying,” he added.

Applied statistician Rafael Irizarry, another member of the coalition, tweeted that 758 COVID-related deaths have been reported in Puerto Rico since April 1.

“The vast majority could have been prevented,” Irizarry said. “Based on the mortality rate of the unvaccinated, if no one had been vaccinated, it would be 1300.”

“With everyone vaccinated, less than 100 [would have died],” he added. “Without vaccination, you won’t go back to normal.”

Rodríguez Orengo, meanwhile, confirmed to the STAR that the COVID-19 case positivity rate on the island has dropped to an 8.7%. He noted however that the decrease has been much slower than in April when the alpha variant was dominant.

Moreover, he said, antigen testing has doubled to 80,000 per week, with molecular testing at around 40,000 tests performed weekly. Therefore, Rodríguez Orengo said, although higher testing rates lead to higher case numbers, they also make it possible to see with greater precision how the delta variant behaves in Puerto Rico.

“What we hope is that we, Puerto Ricans, behave well and continue practicing safety measures on this holiday weekend in order to not see another rebound next week,” he told the STAR. “I’m vaccinated, I carry on with my life, but I still look out for risk factors; if I see that the event that I would attend puts me or my family at risk, I won’t attend that event.”

Puerto Rico Physicians & Surgeons Association President Víctor Ramos said meanwhile that “people just need to vaccinate” to reach herd immunity.

However, he added, in order to talk about herd immunity, vaccination outside the island and the United States must also be considered if the coronavirus is finally to be brought under control.

“If we focus on the worldwide population, around 22% of residents have at least one vaccine shot, while 15% have fulfilled the inoculation process,” he said. “More than variants developing here, variants are happening in other places, especially in countries where people are poor and cannot avoid crowding.”

“We must vaccinate the poor as soon as possible,” Ramos added. “If not, both anti-vaxxers and rich countries will be responsible for allowing the virus to mutate by keeping the available vaccines on hold, similar to what happened with influenza.”

The island Health Department reported Sunday that 12 people died due to COVID-19.

Among those deaths, 11 people were unvaccinated.

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