Vieques residents, and others, line up for the COVID vaccine

Some see normalcy ahead, others say remaining problems ‘worse than the coronavirus’

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

With the Puerto Rico Health Department and the island National Guard issuing a decree to expand the coronavirus vaccine campaign to include people who are 18 years and older in Vieques and Culebra, islanders lined up Wednesday at the María M. Simons de Rivera School in Vieques to be inoculated.

Citizens began arriving at the break of dawn at the only vaccine provider in the offshore island municipality.

At 8:30 a.m., the Puerto Rico National Guard opened the school doors to begin administering the shots.

Among the people who waited in line, 19-year-old Lester Velázquez, told the STAR that he joined his uncle, 34, to get the COVID shot as “it was good for business, and we didn’t want our customers to run away because we’re not vaccinated.”

“I would say that I am getting the vaccine to feel safer while working,” said Velázquez, who works alongside his uncle at a local enterprise in the island municipality. “It would be better if people, all of them, would just get the vaccine, so we don’t have to worry about COVID anyway.”

“We have to show them that we are good and to come join us,” he added.

As for receiving the vaccine amid Vieques’ challenges in providing decent medical services despite not having a hospital open, Velázquez said the situation is a constant reminder for him to stay safe.

“It’s every day, somebody would tell you, in your ear, there’s no hospital open,” he said. “There’s like a second voice in your head that tells you to not do the crazy things that you want to do.”

Meanwhile, Jairo Cintrón Bermúdez, who is also 19 years old, said he was doubtful at first about getting the COVID shot.

“I thought the vaccine arrived quickly -- I thought it was weird,” Cintrón Bermúdez told the STAR. “But my mom, who lives here in Vieques, told me to get it. She told me it was safe.”

Aside from this, he said became convinced it is time “to end this crisis.”

Marjorie and Margaret, who preferred to be given assumed names because they were “skipping work,” said they were seizing the chance to protect themselves against the virus.

Marjorie, for her part, said “this is my chance to be able to work with fewer worries and stay alive for my daughters and husband.”

Margaret told the STAR she has cardiovascular diseases that made her fear the coronavirus.

When asked if they thought the coronavirus vaccine would bring a more optimistic future, Marjorie said “the vaccine is not going to change much, but at least it’s the start of something.”

When asked if they were Vieques residents, the pair preferred not to answer.

Mitsuka Bermúdez, 54, said meanwhile that she felt “happy that our people of Vieques have the opportunity to arrive here and get the coronavirus vaccine.”

“The people I have known who received the vaccines haven’t grown another ear or suffered negative effects,” Bermúdez said. “It’s an advantage we must get our hands on.”

However, she urged “Viequenses” who came from the “big island” to demand a better transportation system.

“I think it is a miracle that those ferries set sail so quick,” she said. “Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, [Maritime Transportation Authority chief] Mara Pérez and Rep. Carlos ‘Johnny’ Méndez need to get their act together and work.”

“You see this bunch of people here because the governor is coming,” she added.

Bermúdez added that the government needs to work on the “hospital that has been abandoned, even since before Hurricane Maria.”

“The hospital should have gotten more priority than the vaccines, believe it or not,” she said.

“The coronavirus pandemic is nothing compared to the situations we face here,” she said, pointing out that Vieques does not have “one Diagnostics and Treatment Center open.”

The governor said during a press conference that the government is currently working on securing the disaster relief funds for the reconstruction of the municipal hospital.

Puerto Rico National Guard Adj. Gen. José Juan Reyes announced meanwhile that as of Tuesday, 4,494 people had been vaccinated in Vieques, 3,626 with both doses and 868 with the first dose.

In the neighboring offshore island municipality of Culebra, as of the same date, 1,096 people had already received both doses and 400 only the first dose, reaching 83% of the population.

Health secretary-designate to work on non-Vieques residents getting vaccines

Meanwhile, when the STAR asked Health Secretary-designate Carlos Mellado López what the department is going to do about people who are not Vieques residents getting the coronavirus vaccine, after the newspaper found a 20-year-old from Naranjito who did, he said he was “working on it.”

“I found out now; I did not know something like this was going to happen,” the Health chief said as he pointed out that citizens who provide services, work in the municipality and people who have family members living on the island are getting the shots.

As for “Viequenses” who have received appointments and were later told to come another day, Mellado López said that, at the moment, no appointment was necessary.

“What we did recently was that people who provided us with information yesterday [Tuesday] were given an appointment today,” he said. “That might have caused a bit of confusion, but the center is open for everyone.”

“We’re talking if we were not to reach 70 or 80 percent, we would continue until Sunday,” added Mellado López. “The instructions were clear: we won’t [leave] the island with vaccines for the big island.”

When asked if people who were not Vieques residents would get the vaccines if the provider had leftovers, the Health secretary said it was an alternative to be considered.

Viequenses demand that basic needs be addressed

Later in the day at the Vieques ferry dock, residents began to protest for the “hospital, decent transportation & food sovereignty.”

They also called for Pérez, the Maritime Transport Authority executive director, to resign.

Adelmarí Lassús, a history teacher who lives in the island municipality, demanded that both Pierluisi and Méndez, who represents Vieques along with several other eastern towns in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, attend to their deficient ferry system, and their food and fuel shortages.

“They just came here for opportunism,” Lassús said. “I think it’s disrespectful that the governor arrives on this island when we don’t have a good maritime transportation system, we have no hospitals, we don’t ever have fuel.”

“You go to a gas station, and their tanks are empty,” she added. “Vieques deserves justice.”

Earlier in the day, both Méndez and Vieques Mayor José Corcino Acevedo asked Pérez via a press release to augment the cargo ship “Mr. Mason” now that the larger regular cargo ship “El Isleño” is under repair.

Pierluisi told the STAR that “El Isleño” was expected to be up and running by today or Friday.

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