Health Dept. orders mask wearing indoors amid virus case rise

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Island Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López announced Tuesday that in light of the case and hospitalization increase due to the delta variant, the agency will issue an administrative order that requires the use of face masks by all people at indoor establishments without distinction of the person’s COVID-19 vaccination status.

The announcement came right after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that even vaccinated individuals use face masks inside enclosed spaces with coronavirus outbreaks occurring around the United States.

Mellado also urged islanders to continue getting vaccinated to counteract the effects of the virus that had claimed 2,569 lives in Puerto Rico as of Tuesday.

“The vaccine, although it is true that there are positive patients, and I have always said this, there are positive patients with both doses of the vaccine, it means that the vaccine protects you in mortality and protects you in the development of the condition, but this does not exceed the vaccine’s level of error,” he pointed out. “It would have been much worse if the patient had not been vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, the Health chief rejected the idea that municipal screening has been dismantled.

He was asked to comment on the matter after the daily newspaper El Vocero reported that Ciales municipal epidemiologist Luis Xavier Mayol Vélez resigned and decried via letter what he said was undue interference from employees lacking experience in public health with the work his team carried out in the follow-up on COVID-19 cases.

“Here the municipal contact tracing system has not been dismantled; what is being done is to bring it to [the] Health [Department],” Mellado said, adding that he is working toward the department making information on the pandemic more comprehensive and transparent.

At about the same time, news outlet Las Noticias from Teleonce received a leaked email from the Health Department in which Principal Epidemiological Officer José Becerra ordered municipal epidemiologists to transfer interview requests to him.

Becerra acknowledged during the last-minute press conference that he held back the release of COVID-19 outbreaks because the people who were developing them “had no scientific quality.”

Becerra made reference to demographers and chemists “who were not epidemiologists.”

He also acknowledged that he ordered municipal epidemiologists not to speak with members of the press unless he authorized it and knew what they were going to report.

He said he wanted to “contextualize” information that was meant to be released to media outlets.

‘Nobody wants to go back to the days of curfews and greater restrictions’

Earlier in the day, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said that he does not rule out making the coronavirus vaccine mandatory through an executive order as a countermeasure against the resurging coronavirus pandemic.

“I will be taking into consideration possible additional measures, but nothing that would entail the imposition of a curfew, or anything of the sort,” the governor said in response to questions at a press conference. “But I am going to look for a way and means to encourage everyone to get vaccinated, except for those who have a reasonable justification [for not doing so].”

When asked if he would seek to turn mandatory vaccination into a piece of legislation, Pierluisi said “there is no need for a bill.”

“We are still in a state of emergency, so by way of an executive order, any other requirement can be established,” he said. “As I said, everything is under evaluation.”

Pierluisi also insisted that it is not necessary to impose a curfew or additional major restrictions similar to last year. Moreover, he said, the current outbreak is “due to people who refuse to get vaccinated against the virus.”

“It’s important that everyone protects themselves, it’s important that everyone gets vaccinated,” he said. “I can understand if you have a medical condition or a particular religious conviction, do not do it, but everyone else should at least go to the around 400 vaccine providers available to protect yourselves and other people.”

“I am focused on finding a way for those who have not been vaccinated to finish their vaccinations if they do not have a justified cause to do so,” Pierluisi added. “It is proven that the only thing that can help us defeat this pandemic is the vaccine.”

Meanwhile, the governor urged both vaccinated and unvaccinated islanders to continue using face masks indoors.

“Nobody wants to go back to the days of curfews and greater restrictions,” he said.

When asked what would be the breaking point with further COVID-19 outbreaks, Pierluisi said the government continues to monitor data and statistics provided by the island Health Department to consider any actions.

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