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Health secretary: ‘Next executive order might be more restrictive’

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

After a meeting held by Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced on Thursday with both the medical and economic task forces at La Fortaleza to discuss recommendations for the next executive order to reduce coronavirus infections in Puerto Rico, Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano said the order might come with “more restrictive measures” to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.

Flanked by Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC by its Spanish acronym) Secretary Manuel Laboy, González Feliciano said topics such as a longer duration for the order and establishing stricter rules on enclosed spaces were discussed.

“Some of the things that were discussed were that the next executive order should have a 21-day duration; we are asking for more time to, scientifically, see the impact from the determinations we take on. Another topic was enclosed areas, and at what point does the lack of collective discipline from both businesses and individuals lead to more positive [COVID-19] cases in Puerto Rico,” González Feliciano said. “The next executive order will be more restrictive. One of the things that we mentioned was that it would be more restrictive for us regulators because we are tasked with guaranteeing that enforcement agencies will work to keep the order in force.”

The Health secretary said the department will be redoubling educational efforts to inform both citizens and the government about the coronavirus pandemic, as a demand from other sectors has been to return to an emphasis on raising awareness.

Laboy noted that in terms of education, which he later termed “enforcement efforts,” it was further discussed that there’s more to be done not only with citizens, but also with the government and the private sector to bring about better compliance with both the current and future executive orders.

“On the topic of enforcement, it has been vastly discussed within this meeting; we must make a greater effort, not only with citizens, but also with the government and the private sector, so that the executive order is implemented. The enforcement -- that people must wear face masks and must follow measures established by such protocols -- we will redouble efforts to educate on that,” Laboy said. “If this is not addressed, the economic sector will be affected. From March to June, 80,000 jobs were lost, according to statistics from the federal government. We are at the verge of losing from 20 to 30 percent of small and midsize businesses. The economic situation is serious; the tourism industry is greatly affected, retail sales and services are greatly affected. Therefore, we must find a way to reduce this contagion and address enforcement issues because, if not, we are going to keep losing jobs and our economy will be harmed even more.”

Meanwhile, the DDEC secretary said the economic sector is in discussions with the public health sector as current circumstances are more challenging for finding a viable solution to minimize the economic impact if another lockdown goes into effect.

“Something that I pointed out at today’s [Thursday’s] meeting was that the circumstances that Puerto Rico had in March and April are not the same as in August; at that time, what was done was the right thing, and our economy, although it was hit hard, could withstand the hit differently than today,” Laboy said. “It’s something we are trying to put into context so the final recommendations that come out achieve that balance in addressing the pandemic, which is truly troubling, and the cases and numbers from the Department of Health are highly worrisome. And how can we manage while minimizing the economic hit? That’s what we are trying to do.”

As for concerns with unemployment and having enough funds to support citizens who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, Laboy said he has been very vocal that “neither federal nor state funds are sufficient currency to fix an economy.”

“They are designed to help and mitigate, but under no circumstance can the money that is available prevent a collapse,” he said.

Physicians & Surgeons president: ‘We must do things differently’

Puerto Rico Physicians & Surgeons Association (CMCPR by its Spanish initials) President Víctor Ramos told the Star that the government must deal differently with the coronavirus pandemic and citizens should comply with safety measures as there has been an average of 400 positive cases daily and a peak in deaths due to COVID-19.

“We have to do things differently because what’s being done now is not working,” Ramos said. “The statistics had a dramatic increase. We have seen around 400 new cases per day and a peak of casualties at nine, 10, 11 deaths a day. The expectations since the last executive order were that if things got worse, we would have around 6,000 positive cases diagnosed with a molecular test; as of yesterday [Wednesday], there were more than 10,000 cases, which is worse than expected. If we don’t do anything, we could have 30,000 COVID-19 cases by September 1.”

Regarding the deaths of critical care specialist Raúl Rubio and family physician Abelardo Vargas, Ramos mourned them and cautioned that more health professionals would lose their lives in the battle against COVID-19 if cases keep rising.

“As of now, 66 physicians have been infected [with COVID-19], when there were only 31 cases on July 1,” he said. “The last two deaths have been deeply sad. It’s a part of the pandemic. We can become infected like the rest of the population with the increase in cases.”

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