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Public health experts: ‘Too soon’ for less strict COVID-related executive


Islanders advised to ‘raise their guard’ against coronavirus


By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star


After scientists from INNO Diagnostics and Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) of Ponce Research Institute, a scientific research center that is part of Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU), detected the UK B.1.1.7 variant in three positive COVID-19 tests conducted in Puerto Rico, PHSU President Dr. Kenira Thompson told the STAR on Thursday that it would be premature for the local government to ease restrictions in the next executive order addressing the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic because “we need more vaccinated people and a healthy population” in order to reopen.


Thompson also urged citizens to keep practicing safety measures such as the proper use of face masks, hand washing, and physical distancing as the island’s vaccination campaign “remains at an early stage.”


“We have only been vaccinating for a month and there is still a long way to go,” Thompson said. “And the fact that we have this strain running around the island, which can potentially be transmitted faster, certainly poses a danger to the public health of the country.”


Thompson added that, from a scientific perspective, it would not be prudent to add more flexibility to anti-virus protocols because it could have complicated implications down the road that could delay efforts such as reopening schools in March, which she said is “completely important for our children.”


Likewise, the public health expert told the STAR that as positive coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have begun to reduce “little by little,” having a coronavirus hotspot with this strain “could lead to inexplicable outbreaks.”


“The virus is not more pathogenic now, it will not cause a more severe disease; it’s not a variant that would result in more hospitalizations and increased mortality,” she said.

“However, what concerns us is that [the coronavirus] could spread quite easily and we could find multiple outbreaks in schools and other places, taking into account that we still have vulnerable people who have not been vaccinated, elderly people who have not been vaccinated, people with chronic diseases who have not been vaccinated, and it is necessary to procure vaccines for them.”


“Furthermore, our children, due to the vaccines’ nature, will not be inoculated for now,” Thompson added. “We can’t think that there are only three cases.”


The PHSU president said the detection of the variant was confirmed Wednesday when PHSU scientists identified the 69-70 deletion in three test results. The deletion is the same one present in the variant detected in the United Kingdom on Dec. 20, and which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had detected in 315 cases across the U.S. at press time.


“It was only a question of time that this would arrive on our island as there’s so much traffic between Puerto Rico and the U.S.,” Thompson said. “It was inevitable.”


As for using two face masks, a method that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he has been practicing in his personal life, Thompson said that although the practice can provide double protection against the coronavirus, citizens still face limitations in purchasing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and most “do not have access to two KN95 masks.”


“What matters the most is for people to use their face masks,” she said. “If people have cloth masks, wash them; you cannot use the same mask for an entire week or month because it defeats the purpose of protecting yourself against the virus.”


“Try not to put face masks on surfaces after they’ve been worn, as it promotes the spreading of the virus,” she added. “Have a plastic bag with you to put [the mask] away. Find a way to keep your [living] spaces as clean as possible to prevent cross-contamination.”


‘Not the time to ease COVID restrictions’


Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) Executive Director Dr. José Rodríguez Orengo said meanwhile that the next executive order related to the coronavirus pandemic on the island “should remain as is.” He suggested that positive COVID cases must continue to decline “if we want to reopen schools.”


“Our priorities should continue to be reducing COVID cases enough to begin reopening schools partially, with a hybrid course system and a solid contact tracing system,” Rodríguez Orengo said.


He said further that even if COVID hospitalizations and deaths have declined compared to numbers reported in December, data from the island Health Department currently projects an average of 500 cases and eight deaths per day.


“We had a similar situation back in September, when we had around 300 cases and seven casualties, and later we faced a day when the Health Department reported more than 1,100 cases in one day,” the PRPHT executive director said. “To say now that we have only 500 daily cases and that we are doing well, I am not sure about that.”


“Think of Puerto Rico as a field and imagine the coronavirus as a wildfire, if Puerto Rico were to face a wildfire, Puerto Rico has a lot of space to combust,” Rodríguez Orengo added. “With this analogy, what I want to say is that there are a lot of people who haven’t been infected with the coronavirus; therefore, the following measures should help the firefighters, both public health officers and the government in our case, to keep that fire from spreading.”


Like Thompson, he also urged Puerto Rico residents to keep practicing safety measures against the coronavirus. Beyond that, he suggested that, if possible, people use surgical, N95, or KN95 masks because “cloth masks only provide 50% protection from the coronavirus.”


Rodríguez Orengo called on islanders to “not lower their guard, but rather raise it,” including the elderly, who he reiterated are still more at risk of dying after contracting the coronavirus.


“The reasons [for deaths among the elderly] remain the same; it’s an 80-20% situation,” he said. “The number of people who contract the virus and are younger than 60 is around 80%. However, the number of people who die [from COVID-19] in Puerto Rico, and who are older than 60, is 80-90% depending on the week.”


“I’ve seen that most of our elderly don’t wear their masks over their nose and mouth or don’t cover properly,” he added.


As for what’s next for the island, Puerto Rico Physicians & Surgeons Association (CMCPR by its Spanish initials) President Víctor Ramos said monitoring the coronavirus variant’s trajectory and current federal restrictions declared by President Joe Biden “will help to keep the virus in control.”


“As President Biden has pledged to purchase more COVID vaccines, this could help as it strengthens our inoculation efforts around the island,” Ramos said.


Moreover, he urged citizens to be aware if establishments they visit enforce proper safety measures and to keep informed on where sudden case spikes are taking place.


“If businesses are not enforcing any safety measures, the most proper thing would be to report it to the authorities, but if you don’t do that, [at least] do not stay in that place because you could contract the virus,” Ramos told the STAR.


As for being in favor or against fewer restrictions in the next COVID-related executive order, he said that as a member of Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia’s scientific coalition he will defer to the governor’s decision, but added that the coalition will submit their recommendations.


Pierluisi, meanwhile, said at a press conference Thursday that he wasn’t considering new restrictions for the next order, but was looking at “easing restrictions just a little.”


“There are about three confirmed cases, there are about 16 or 17 suspicious [cases of the UK coronavirus variant]. They are in the process of investigation,” the governor said. “Of course, we are an island with approximately 3.2 million people. So we have to monitor it. But to the question of if I foresee any new restrictions, the answer is no.”


Early Thursday, soon after PHSU reported the detection of the UK coronavirus variant on the island, the STAR requested an interview with Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López. However, the spokesperson for Mellado López said he would not be making any statements in the morning, and at press time no statement from the Health chief had been issued.

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