Public health experts urge public to ‘stay home as much as possible’ amid holiday season case rise
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
As the island Health Department confirmed Sunday that Puerto Rico has had more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases, public health experts called for citizens to protect themselves against the coronavirus during the holidays.
“We’re in a critical phase,” Puerto Rico Physicians & Surgeons Association (CMCPR by its Spanish initials) President Víctor Ramos said. “We began seeing an upsurge [in positive cases] in October and we have not gone down [in numbers].”
Ramos insisted that citizens must keep their guard up as “Christmas is coming, and we don’t want to lose family members for next year’s Christmas.”
Likewise, Ramos said community spreading remains in an upward trend, “as there are days where we have gotten 800-900 cases, which will necessarily translate into hospitalizations and casualties two weeks later.”
“This virus is generally stable,” the pediatrician said. “We can predict what will happen, unlike the flu.”
Ramos also told the Star that, although there were not as many people crowding into malls compared to Black Friday sales events from previous years, those who did turn out for such events “will translate eventually into a future rise in cases and deaths.”
“It’s the same thing that happened during the general elections, the primary elections, the Democratic Party primary elections,” the CMCPR leader said. “The issue is that there was no physical distancing, people would stand there and hug, kiss and speak with people who they haven’t seen for a while. Citizens might be using face masks [more than in the United States], but there’s no distance between them.”
When the Star asked if there were more optimal strategies for commercial locations to enforce maximum capacity limitations, as posts on social media outlets have shown people crowding together even though the current executive order states that authorized establishments may only allow 30 percent of available customer capacity, the pediatrician said “each establishment should be responsible for enforcing the order.”
“Usually, the majority of establishments have enforced body temperature screening, compulsory of face masks and hand sanitizing, yet they are not enforcing space limitations, especially restaurants,” Ramos said as he referred to the shutdown that the Health Department conducted at the Gurabo restaurant Zafra del Caribe, which hosted two wedding receptions after providing false documents to agency officers.
“Other countries are doing the same thing as we are in terms of capacity policies; it will depend on how many personnel you have available to enforce the order. We’re short on police officers, as their presence has decreased due to pension and salary affairs,” he said. “The Department of Health’s Investigation Office, with their available resources, has done an extraordinary job. I know that its director [Jesús Hernández] does not rest as he intervenes with establishments who aren’t enforcing the order, but there is a personnel shortage in both state and municipal police. They do what they can, but it’s impossible to have one police officer assigned at each home.”
Meanwhile, Ramos told the Star that “people might be tired of this issue, but we must keep following orders,” such as physical distancing, constant use of face masks, and frequent hand washing. He said further that although “there’s light at the end of the tunnel” as coronavirus vaccines are closer to becoming a reality, citizens should keep protecting themselves from COVID-19.
“The vaccine might be starting to arrive now in December, in the middle of the following year, it would be available to the general public,” Ramos said. “If we accomplish inoculating 70 percent of the population, we can get out of this situation; therefore, we must cooperate and not listen to allegations that come from conspiracy theories, and information that is not true and can’t be proven with scientific information.”
Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) Executive Director José Rodríguez Orengo advised citizens to “stay home as much as possible and not go out unless it is necessary.”
“Active case levels have exceeded 9,000 people and hospitalizations have reached levels of more than 600 in the last week,” Rodríguez Orengo said. “We need everyone’s cooperation to contain the infection levels that we have at the moment. We must protect ourselves to protect others.”
The PRPHT director said people with chronic diseases or who are 60 years or older should be more aware as “these are the ones who mainly can reach hospitals and possibly advance the disease to a critical condition.”
Nine towns have more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases
The Health Department reported on Sunday that nine island municipalities have more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The agency defines confirmed cases as those in which polymerase chain reaction tests return positive.
As for the most affected city, San Juan has reported 8,410 COVID-19 cases, for a 12.1 percent positivity rate.
Bayamón is second with 3,963 cases, which represents an 8.1 percent positivity rate, followed by Carolina and Caguas, which have 3,434 (7 percent positivity rate) and 2,052 (4.2 percent positivity rate) cases, respectively.
Towns including Guaynabo, Toa Baja, Toa Alta, Trujillo Alto and Vega Baja meanwhile reported fewer than 2,000 cases.
Guaynabo reported 1,871 cases; Toa Baja reported 1,541 cases; Toa Alta, 1,515; Trujillo Alto, 1,330; and Vega Baja, 1,126.
Civil Rights Commission requests changes to public safety law with regard to COVID-19 management
In other issues, Civil Rights Commission Chairman Nieve de los Ángeles Vázquez requested late last week that the local government review Act 20, the law that created the Public Safety Department, in order to clarify citizens’ civil rights within the context of limitations caused by COVID-19 on the island.
“On Nov. 13, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced issued Executive Order EO-080, extending and expanding the restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the guidelines are the reduction to a 30% maximum capacity in restaurants, the prohibition of using beaches except for exercising, the partial mobilization of the National Guard to assist the Puerto Rico Police [Bureau] and more aggressive interventions with violations of the restrictions,” de los Ángeles Vázquez said. “This executive order expires on Dec. 11. Like the previous executive orders, many of its restrictions are not based on objective and rational criteria that justify them.”
Referring to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that executive orders should adjust to current constitutional rulings, de los Ángeles Vázquez said public health declarations should reconcile the legitimate interest of the state to protect public health with considerations regarding citizens’ constitutional and civil rights.
The Civil Rights Commission called on the island Legislature to assume its constitutional function of legislating in a clear, rational, and well-founded manner on the statutory parameters that regulate executive orders.
The organization noted further that in such a context, Article 6.10 of Law 20 of April 10, 2017, as amended, known as the Department of Public Safety Law, “has turned out to be extremely broad and ambiguous for addressing the acute constitutional controversies that the coronavirus pandemic has raised and that directly affect citizens’ rights.”
Tourist who refused to wear a face mask at LMM airport is detained
Authorities from the island Health Department put a passenger at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport under civil arrest on Saturday evening after the passenger refused to use a face mask within the premises and physically assaulted a Puerto Rico National Guard officer.
According to preliminary information, at 10:15 p.m. passenger Adrien Williams did not follow instructions from the officer to wear a mask and present his travel declaration to Health Department personnel in the arrival area.
A hearing in the case was scheduled for Friday in Carolina Superior Court.
As of press time Sunday, the Health Department had reported 11 deaths due to COVID-19 in its daily report, bringing the cumulative death toll on the island since the emergency began in March to 1,094.
Likewise, 141 confirmed cases, eight probable cases and 65 suspicious cases were included on the COVID-19 Dashboard.
As for hospitalizations, the agency reported 606 people hospitalized, with 102 patients under intensive care and 87 on ventilators due to the coronavirus.
No pediatric patients were reported hospitalized.