• The Star Staff

Health Dept. continues surveillance efforts to detect and prevent COVID-19

Agency conducts 2,500-plus antigen tests at toll stations in Salinas and Arecibo; updated executive order takes effect today

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

In an effort to strengthen the Municipal Case Investigation and Contact Tracing System, the island Department of Health continued conducting free antigen tests Sunday at both the Salinas and Arecibo toll stations to detect the coronavirus and prevent its spread in Puerto Rico.

Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano said the importance of continuing such efforts is to detect more cases of the virus that causes COVID-19, connect them to the government’s contact tracing system and retrieve more information from people who had contact with others who had the virus.

“People are getting concerned, people are responding to these efforts that we’re doing around the island,” González Feliciano said. “We’re doing mass testing, we’re doing as much as we can and need to do to find that positive case and protect our population.”

As for the results in Salinas, at press time, the Health Department had conducted more than 1,200 tests, with more than 40 people testing positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, in Arecibo, more than 1,500 antigen tests were conducted, although numbers on positive cases were unavailable at press time.

“When we did it back at the Buchanan toll [last week], people had to wait around three or four hours to be tested. Now the experience has been a 90-minute wait time both in Arecibo and Salinas; evidently, logistics have run dramatically different,” González Feliciano said, adding that the event has been “a learning experience” that he expects to continue every Sunday at a minimum of two toll stations.

Meanwhile, the updated executive order goes into effect today whereby the capacity of such authorized establishments as restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and gyms is reduced to 30 percent. The Health secretary said the new order, like every other, was based “on scientific and economic efforts,” adding that he believes the agency’s efforts at communication and education have improved.

“What’s added here is the [Puerto Rico] National Guard [PRNG], reminding us that they are not the [Puerto Rico] Police [Bureau], the latter of which can make arrests,” González Feliciano said. “The PRNG will work as a partner entity with the Police, educating and acknowledging if there are any violations to report to the Police and, thereby, enforce the executive order.”

The Health chief emphasized that the island is looking at up to 500-600 COVID-19 cases in the aftermath of general elections earlier this month.

When the Star asked if the new order will prevent crowding behavior after reporter Jeremy Ortiz from Telemundo released videos of citizens at La Placita de Santurce without face coverings and not practicing physical distancing after the established curfew, González Feliciano said changes should be evident as the current order calls for municipal police officers to take action.

Furthermore, he said, the Health Department is hiring more personnel for the Investigations Office to augment enforcement.

“What we said in the past when we had a situation at Condado, we went there physically [to enforce the order]. If we have to go to La Placita, we will go there, there’s no doubt,” González Feliciano said. “If we don’t take this matter seriously, and we face a significant upturn [in COVID-19 cases], both our medical resources and the population will be harmed.”

As for a future shutdown, he said that even though there have been more than 550 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, hospital usage is still under the expected range with around 60-70 percent occupancy.

“At this moment, we have reasonable space that we can use at hospitals. We keep looking at the data,” he said. “One of the issues we want to address is how many COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic and how many of them need to go to a hospital. With this, we would have more in-depth data.”

Meanwhile, when the Star asked what’s been happening at island hospitals given public health workers’ claims of mismanagement with respect to COVID-19 safety protocols, González Feliciano said every complaint has been referred to the assistant secretary for regulation and accreditation of health facilities and that no complaint has been received that has raised great concerns.

When asked if the Health Department was determined to conduct unannounced hospital inspections, González Feliciano said such a move was under consideration.

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