PDP lawmakers seek to question Health, Education secretary-designates on COVID emergency plans

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Reps. Sol Higgins Cuadrado and Deborah Soto Arroyo announced Sunday that the island House of Representatives will file two resolutions to question designated Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López and designated Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos on their respective plans to control and manage the coronavirus pandemic in Puerto Rico.

During a press conference at the House Speaker’s Office in the Capitol, the freshman lawmakers said that if both HR 2 and HR 3 are passed Tuesday, Mellado López will be summoned for Thursday, while Aponte Santos will be summoned for Feb. 11.

Higgins, who chairs the House Health Committee, said the questioning will be done “with the best intention of letting the people of Puerto Rico know the correct information.”

“I have a 10-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy who have remained in their home for a year and have not caught even a cold, and to know that they might begin [going back to] school amid the COVID situation, it’s extremely concerning for me as a mother,” Higgins said.

“We [the House] want to know the vaccination plan, to inquire about concerns that every citizen has regarding what is happening [with the plan], how is it being carried out, who is getting vaccinated, who is getting prioritized, who is not, what happened with the vaccine phases, were phases skipped or were they not? That’s what we want to know,” said the representative for District 35 (Humacao, Naguabo and Las Piedras).

Higgins added that every other political delegation is welcome to participate in the hearing as “this is a time to set politics aside.”

“The COVID pandemic and the school reopening issue is affecting everyone; this is not a matter for a specific sector,” she said. “There’s no problem for children to start school again, but what are the plans to provide a sense of safety to their parents, to provide safety to our teachers, but, more importantly, to provide safety for our children, who can’t get vaccinated [against the coronavirus].”

Soto, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the hearing’s purpose is to determine if the agency has developed back-to-school plans amid the pandemic and the infrastructure issues that the education system has faced since last year’s earthquakes.

“Our greatest concern is what will happen when schools begin [in-person] classes, as the governor [Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia] has expressed his belief that the best date to begin, whether staggered, would be in March,” Soto said. “We in this Education Committee want to sit down and listen to the appointed secretary so that she can express her feelings regarding the schools in the south [of the island]; if there is a structured plan for the infrastructure; if there is a structured plan to receive our children in the northern, eastern and western regions.”

Soto added that other issues to be covered in the inquiry are the Special Education program’s status during the pandemic, the safety protocols to be followed if schools were to reopen and a report on students’ life conditions during the public health emergency.

“We have seen recently from media outlets how Dr. Mellado stated that there is a feeling that children have to go back to school because they are going hungry, because our children are in depression,” the District 10 (Toa Baja) representative said as she urged Aponte Santos to “present some statistics generated by the school directors, social workers, and psychologists, and finally answer the question: How many children are starving?”

Aside from the aforementioned concerns, Higgins said she would also question Mellado López on the status of the implementation of the genomic surveillance system that identifies mutations circulating in other countries and deciphers COVID-19 infection patterns, after scientists from the Ponce Health Sciences University last week detected the UK B.1.1.7 variant in three positive COVID-19 tests conducted on the island.

For his part, Mellado reacted later on his social media platforms. The secretary made himself available to respond to questions from the lawmakers.

“I recognize the great responsibility that comes with, even more so in times of pandemic, being the secretary of Health. I am available to go to any forum to explain the work done by hundreds of public employees who are attending to the world emergency day and night. The times are not of confrontation but of unity of purpose because the challenges we have are great,” he said on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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