• The Star Staff

Physicians & Surgeons Assn. president: Thanksgiving should only be celebrated with close family

Víctor Ramos insists that safety guidelines must be followed to keep all family members alive

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Amid the rise in COVID-19 cases and intensive care unit hospitalizations due to the disease caused by the coronavirus, medical experts urged citizens on Wednesday to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with only their close family circle to prevent the virus from spreading further.

“This is very simple. If we want all of our family members [to be alive and present] for next year and other events, and not have to grieve someone’s absence, we must cooperate this year,” Puerto Rico Physicians & Surgeons Association (CMCPR by its Spanish initials)

President Víctor Ramos told the Star, adding that he doesn’t wish for any person to be “grieving the loss of someone in later years and every weekend because of not doing things right.”

As for people who have travelled to Puerto Rico from the United States to visit family members despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that the island is “on a very high level of COVID-19” and urging citizens to “avoid all travel,” the pediatrician said travelers should have their negative COVID-19 test and remain in quarantine for 14 days to prevent greater risks.

“In reality, by traveling, they are not preventing any tragedies; the United States has a case uprise similar to Puerto Rico in 46 out of 50 states,” Ramos said. “Many people didn’t travel to Puerto Rico during their summer vacations; others came from the States, which is what began the community transmission.”

Ramos said the CDC recommendation extends to the U.S. mainland as “there are states that have a 56 percent positivity rate, others with 50, 26 -- these are alarming rates.”

“People should avoid traveling, but we know that’s not going to happen,” he added.

Cruz María Nazario, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health, said the best way to celebrate Thanksgiving Day is “staying at home and avoiding going into closed spaces with crowds of people.”

“It’s the time to take advantage of how to celebrate life without infecting others, without increasing the number of cases and deaths,” Nazario said. “I believe that we must stimulate people to design strategies to prevent spreading.”

As for strategies, Nazario said the safest way is to celebrate the holiday virtually.

“The youth have so many mechanisms, such as social networks, that can help conduct a virtual holiday, where they can share and joke around with family members and friends without being too close,” the epidemiologist said.

Nazario said that if anyone were to gather with family members, the best bet was celebrating it outdoors, not having more than 10 guests, not inviting people who aren’t close relatives to the gathering and using face masks at all times.

“There has to be access to hand washing or hand sanitizers available for the guests,” the epidemiologist said as she urged people not to share their food and to keep the gathering brief as infection risk increases over time.

“You could set up two tables, six feet apart from each other,” she said. “Unlike before, where everyone picked up food with their used utensils, guests should bring their own food, set it on their table and not share either the meal or the cutlery. Close encounters while dining should not be promoted as they lead to spreading.”

Nazario also suggested that music should be at low volume so that guests don’t have to speak loudly, as that leads to expelling more saliva droplets.

“We are at a time of crisis in Puerto Rico. Now, the crisis can take place if you have to go to a hospital and the resources for getting medical attention become unavailable,” she said.

“Imagine arriving at a hospital with your mother or any other family member, and a hospital worker tells you: ‘We can’t help you. There are no beds available.’ That has happened in Italy, Spain and many parts of the United States.”

The epidemiologist further told the Star that “we have to be thankful that we are not ill, we have to be grateful that we can do what’s right to not infect others, we have to be grateful that we can wear face masks to protect each other if one of us carries the virus.”

Spike in cases has been occurring since October; mass testing should be accessible to prevent ‘greater crisis’

Ramos, meanwhile, said the latest rise in COVID-19 cases was not unexpected as infections have been increasing since late October due to political events and other occasions where people have not practiced safety guidelines as they have gathered in crowded spaces.

“It’s not just politicians, politicians, politicians,” the CMCPR president said. “They might have been irresponsible, but they weren’t the only contributors to the case spike.”

Although Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced denied that a lockdown was up for consideration, Ramos told the Star that “lockdowns are always an option.”

“We know that lockdowns work, and I know that people like to say otherwise, but we have seen that when countries have decreased cases dramatically it has been when they declared lockdowns,” he said, mentioning New Zealand as one of the countries that has addressed the global pandemic successfully and reactivated their economic sector.

Ramos noted further that due to the earlier lockdown issued in March, “there were basically no coronavirus cases in June.”

The Star asked what measures should be taken to find balance between the island’s health and economy should another lockdown be ordered. Ramos said that even though he understands the economic sector’s concern amid the pandemic, as even medical offices have faced a dramatic loss in income, “we are projecting a public health reality, which is also a general reality.”

“In the case that we have no other options left, we must go for it,” he said, referring to another islandwide lockdown.

Nazario said mass testing for COVID-19 should be a priority.

“Severe cases will keep arriving at hospitals, leading to a greater crisis,” the epidemiologist said. “If we don’t take the right measures, cases will keep going up. Because there aren’t many tests being conducted, many people are walking around who might be positive for the coronavirus and have no symptoms; therefore, they think that they’re incapable of infecting others.”

Meanwhile, she called out the government’s emergency management.

“The government looks like they don’t care about doing something about it to control the pandemic,” Nazario said, adding that the Harvard University COVID-19 Dashboard shows Puerto Rico’s islandwide positivity rate at around 17 percent.

“If we arrive at Christmas with this high [positivity] rate, there will be another rise in COVID-19 cases,” she said.

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