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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Health officials defend COVID-19 response record in face of criticism

Chief Epidemiology Officer Dr. Melissa Marzán

By John McPhaul

Both Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López, and Dr. Melissa Marzán, the government’s chief epidemiology officer, rejected on Wednesday the complaints of a group of doctors who denounced the agency’s alleged inaction in the face of the uptick in cases and deaths from COVID-19.

“The response evaluation process is continuous. We always identify spaces for improvement, but without a doubt, we are maintaining an integrated and robust response, which is unmatched by any other jurisdiction or country,” Mellado López said in a written statement. “Our emphasis remains on providing access to testing, vaccination and treatment. In addition, we have integrated public health strategies as part of public policy, such as the mandatory use of masks in large events, public transportation, educational institutions and health facilities. We will continue to monitor the epidemic and integrate new strategies to strengthen the response. We recognize that the emergency is not over and the Department’s commitment to public health continues as it did on the first day.”

Marzán noted that Health Department personnel “have been pioneers in collecting and publishing daily updated data on multiple indicators of the epidemic in Puerto Rico.”

“Likewise, we have promoted transparency by making the data accessible 24/7 so that scientists and researchers around the world can conduct their own analyses, but also so that various organizations and communities can make informed decisions.”

“In addition, each surveillance develops guidelines and protocols tempered to the different populations, and written reports that are published periodically to keep the population informed,” she said.

Dr. Iris Cardona, the Health Department’s chief medical officer, stressed that “we have moved quickly with antiviral and monoclonal treatments to give patients access as soon as they receive a diagnosis of COVID-19, all free of cost.”

The statements were made in response to complaints from a group of health professionals, scientists and doctors who questioned the alleged “lack of action” by the Health Department in the face of a high rate of COVID-19 infections in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Fabiola Cruz López, an epidemiologist, Dr. Brenda Mariola Rivera Reyes, a pediatric pulmonologist, Dr. Alberto Rosario, a primary physician and epidemiologist, and Dr. Marcos Ramos Benítez, an infectious disease expert, raised several points and made recommendations on Tuesday in search of implementing infection prevention measures. Cruz López pointed to the need for greater data agility and public health education.

“One of the pillars in public health is the continuous analysis of data to then inform, educate and empower communities,” he said. “Unfortunately, the response has focused on treatments and vaccines, ignoring the importance of preventing infections or reinfections, which we know have a long-term damaging impact on our quality of life. It is not enough to say that we already know about COVID-19, provide numbers and recite that ‘care is individual.’”

“Right now, we are in the midst of a change in health strategy carried out abruptly, hastily and, as in most of the pandemic, without any explanation as to why the decisions were made, nor what each change could mean [for people’s health],” said Rivera Reyes, who is one of the leading expert voices on long COVID in Puerto Rico.

“I think we already understood that COVID-19 does not seem to be going away in the near future, and, as we colloquially say, ‘We have to learn to live with it’ just as we live with other diseases,” Ramos Benítez said. “But the difference is that we always do our best not to get sick. The question is, right now, are we doing our best?”

Dr. Mónica Feliú Mójer, director of communications for CienciaPR, said “[w]e are certainly not suggesting that there is a need to go back to lockdowns, or the restrictions of two years ago.”

“However, given the current levels of transmission of COVID-19, which are almost as high as during the worst moments of the pandemic, we believe that strong and consistent preventive actions are necessary, such as requiring masks again in all closed spaces (as was done then) to avoid infection,” she said. “Without infections, cases do not increase, new variants, complications, or long COVID do not arise. Neither do hospitalizations and deaths increase.”

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