• The Star Staff

Health secretary-designate leaves COVID restrictions to Pierluisi amid case uptick

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Puerto Rico, island Health Secretary-designate Carlos Mellado López said Monday that the final decision on declaring stricter measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic will be in the hands of Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia.

Mellado López spoke to members of the press outside Health Department headquarters in Río Piedras after meeting with the governor at La Fortaleza, where he said measures such as total lockdowns, shutting down schools, establishing greater capacity restrictions or imposing restrictions on alcohol consumption were not under consideration to mitigate the increase in COVID-19 cases that began two weeks ago.

“Obviously, that is a decision of the governor,” Mellado López said. “What we [dealt with] at the meeting were the [COVID case and hospitalization] numbers and what he is going to do is according to the numbers that we presented. … The governor is going to make the decision that he understands [is best] because, remember, there are additional sectors.”

“[The capacity of] the hospitals has not reached a level that is considerable [enough] to have a lockdown, as some sectors have said,” Mellado López added. “Perhaps the opening hours can be limited -- that will be decided by the governor. We were indeed summoned by him to talk about the situation that was happening with the schools, to explain what was really the situation that was happening with the schools.”

As for schools, the Health chief also said greater restrictions are not anticipated as “schools have not reached the red level.”

“What we are saying, and this is contained in the [Surveillance System] protocol, when we analyze the data from the schools, we see that there has not been any outbreak in the schools,” he said. “Yes, it is recommended, when the whole island reaches the red level, school closures must be established; this is part of the protocol, and what I mean by closing, it means to return to online classes for two weeks.”

As for the current state of coronavirus variants, Mellado López said the Health Department was speaking with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to establish a local genomic surveillance system, something he said is vital in the fight against the pandemic.

He said he is in communication with the federal entity on “how to make an MOU [memorandum of understanding], perhaps with states or universities that already have the agreements in place,” to conduct the SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance.

“In fact, Puerto Rico does genomic surveillance in the CDC laboratories [located on the island]. The issue is that we need more capacity and to make an agreement to have more capacity with, even, private laboratories that are doing it because the fact is that we have genomic surveillance,” the official said. “What we can establish is which of the variants is predominant in Puerto Rico because -- although we do not know it, we know that it could certainly be -- there could even be a variant in Puerto Rico, and what we want to know is which one it is, how effective is the vaccine and the monoclonal antibody treatments to work with this, and then redirect the strategies to have a good surveillance system.”

Mellado López said another opening in the vaccination phases will be announced, although he did not say to what extent the vaccine campaign would expand as he pointed out that he will be in dialogue with the Vaccination Program chief, Dr. Iris Cardona.

However, he said that after May 1, the vaccination campaign will be open for the general public, thus complying with the goal established by President Joe Biden.

“We already have 1,500,000 doses administered, over half a million people with the two doses in Puerto Rico, as soon as we see that we can increase the vaccination capacity and have surveillance systems, I think things should improve,” Mellado López said.

The secretary-designate also urged citizens to take safety measures in view of the increase in cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks in the wake of crowding events that occurred at Cayo Caracoles in Lajas and during which a reported 31 establishments were cited by the Department of Health for non-compliance with the executive order.

“There is something that no one can control and that is precisely what is happening now with family activities,” Mellado López said. “There are 52% of cases and we cannot have a police officer for every house or every apartment in Puerto Rico.”

“People have to understand that we are in a pandemic and people have forgotten that there is a pandemic, that we are in pandemic fatigue; there are people who believe that vaccination is effective, there are people who believe that if they have been vaccinated, they don’t have to put masks on,” he said. “There are people who understand that that is not so; we have seen worldwide that with the variants, the vaccine can lose effectiveness.”

The current executive order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus expires on Sunday.

Earlier in the day, Mayors Association President Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz and Mayors Federation President Ángel Pérez Otero went to Health Department headquarters to meet with the Health secretary-designate to request an extension of federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to cover the expenses of the municipal contact tracing systems.

The two mayors met with the director of the Municipal Case Investigation and Contract Tracing System, Dr. Yonaica Plaza, and Dr. Marilú Cintrón, the deputy secretary of family health, as Mellado López was meeting with the governor at La Fortaleza.

“Certainly, the [consultations] have to come back,” Hernández Ortiz said. “The integration of the mayors into discussions on when changes are going to be made to the executive order should be a priority.”

Meanwhile, the Villalba mayor urged the Health Department to reconsider the language used in reporting coronavirus positivity rates in the municipalities because, he said, there are not enough COVID tests being conducted.

“That is tied to the number of tests that are being done per municipality, and obviously, the experts are saying that there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of people who are being tested, for whatever reason,” Hernández Ortiz said. “We want to take up the offensive again to, in some way, increase the tests that are done in the municipalities because I guarantee you that if more tests are done in the municipalities, at least -- one of our requests is that we receive 3,000 tests per municipality to start working -- they are going to decrease the positivity rate in the municipalities and then we will be able to make the right decisions.”

Pérez Otero added that “we have not sat down to discuss executive orders.”

“Now that we are seeing an upturn, that there is indeed a report from the group of epidemiologists that we do not know what it contains, [based on] what they indicated to us, I think it is of utmost importance that we can sit down, discuss it and [so] the measures that have to be taken in favor of the people can be taken,” he said.

At press time, Health Department spokesperson Lisdián Acevedo reported that the island currently has 21 coronavirus cases with variants.

Among them, 11 cases involve the UK variant (B.1.1.7), eight involve the California variant (B.1.429) and two involve one of the two Brazil variants (P.2).

Two cases originated in Arecibo, one in Bayamón, one in Fajardo, two in Mayagüez, four in the San Juan metro area, and nine in Ponce.

Also at press time, it remained unknown where two B.1.429 cases originated from.

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