PR Health secretary: School reopening due date ‘doesn’t mean that schools will open on March 1’

Mellado López says teachers and non-academic workers must get COVID vaccine and coronavirus cases must have declined to ‘a proper level’

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The STAR

With Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia asking Puerto Rico Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos to do everything within her reach to prepare schools to reopen as early as March, island Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López said the deadline doesn’t imply schools reopening immediately when that month arrives, as safety requirements against COVID-19 need to go into effect first.

During a press conference held after a meeting between government officials and the Puerto Rico Mayors Federation to address municipal efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and organize vaccination campaigns in various towns, Mellado López said the due date established by the governor is more of a goal.

“If we don’t have a goal set, we will be talking about reopening schools for a whole year,” he said.

“The March deadline doesn’t mean that schools will open on March 1. If we want to open schools, certain conditions must be enforced,” he said in response to a question from the STAR. “One, that every teacher and non-academic employee, whether they work at a public, private school or university, must get vaccinated; two, that the [coronavirus] infection rate remains at a proper level to begin scheduling a reopening; and three, we must be aware of the new coronavirus strain.”

As for efforts to prevent future coronavirus infections, the official said the Health Department will conduct an islandwide orientation campaign. Likewise, the agency will expand and reinforce testing centers so citizens become aware of their health.

“If these conditions are fulfilled, we can begin talking about a plan, such as having 50% of the student body, or 30% if statistics say otherwise, with adequate personal protective equipment and every worker and teacher inoculated,” the Health chief added, noting that other options could be to schedule reopenings for students who can get the vaccines first and implement hybrid class sessions.

Meanwhile, he said he’s been in contact with Aponte Santos about logistics.

“We are looking for a balance as children are facing issues because they are not having any interactions with other students,” Mellado López said, referring to an issue about which the pediatric community has already raised concerns.

The Health chief said further that he wants both the Education secretary and educational institutions “to have all the backup in the world from Health’s epidemiologists to establish a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D -- every plan required.”

“As a country, we must set a goal to reopen schools, but the fact that we said schools would open again in March, it’s a goal that’s been set,” he said. “Maybe we reopen in April, maybe we reopen next summer. If we don’t have that goal, we will never fulfill anything.”

The Education secretary, meanwhile, told members of the press that, due to current conversations, drafts have been developed during the first three days as “our duty is to guarantee greater access to education and protect every child’s well being.”

“We face a great challenge with our schools’ infrastructure,” Aponte Santos said. “We have met with some mayors from the south [of Puerto Rico] to gather their concerns and look for viable alternatives as we know that we have another challenge due to the earthquakes.”

When the STAR asked if the Education Department would reconsider reopening schools that were shut down by then-Education chief Julia Keleher, who was arrested in July 2019 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors, Aponte Santos said it was under consideration along with building satellites in the regions hit by earthquakes and determining open-air spaces to minimize coronavirus infection risks.

As for concerns about getting around 70% of U.S. citizens inoculated by this summer, with a projected vaccination rate of 30,000 to 40,000 weekly, Mellado López said the delay has been due to vaccine distribution issues in the mainland U.S., high demand, and the absence of vaccines with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) emergency permit.

Nonetheless, Puerto Rico National Guard Adj. Gen. José Reyes said the delay won’t be for long as more vaccines get FDA emergency authorization. One of the vaccines currently under observation, which would require one dose, is from manufacturer Johnson & Johnson.

“The vaccine flow is based on the projection; however, both Pfizer and Moderna have advanced to where they are now producing over 5 billion vaccines,” the island Health secretary said. “There’s a requirement that the U.S. must obtain the first batches as the government invested $12 billion with these manufacturers. The flow will continue rising. Saying 30,000 weekly inoculations for the next 52 weeks would be [using] linear math; numbers will keep going up.”

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