Curfew, Nonessential-Business Closure in Puerto Rico Extended to April 12
Island Awaits Order of 3,000 Ventilators to Treat COVID-19 Patients
SAN JUAN — What was an open secret, has been made official. The governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez Garced, said she will extend the executive order that mandates the total closure of non-essential business facilities and curfew until April 12.
Justifying the stricter social-distancing measures she was announcing at a press conference held on the grounds of the governor’s official residence, La Fortaleza, Vázquez stressed that she wants Puerto Rico to be a model for how to address the fight against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID19) and that stateside cases are rising quickly due to the delay in sending people home.
Starting March 31, the curfew will begin at 7 p.m., instead of 9 p.m. as is the case until then, and will last until 5 a.m., leaving residents two fewer hours to be outside their homes for essential errands. Furthermore, it was announced that all supermarkets on the island will not open Sundays.
“On the recommendation of the experts of the medical task force, I have determined to extend the quarantine so that we all remain in our homes, and thus avoid contagion. It is a necessary measure that is being taken in many countries of the world because we have realized it is the best defense we have to combat this pandemic. Social distancing is key, it is the only antidote we have to stop the contagion curve,” the governor said.
The most recent results announced by the Department of Health are 64 positive cases and 377 negative results. The results of another 335 tests are expected and two deaths have been recorded.
The governor revealed that she had appointed a new secretary of Health “a prestigious doctor, psychiatrist, with more than three decades of professional experience,” Dr. Lorenzo González Feliciano, who had served as secretary from 2009 to 2013.
González hold’s a doctorate in health systems administration from Central Michigan University and a master’s in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh-Katz Institute. He is a medical doctor graduated from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine (UPR) and has a specialty in child and adolescent psychiatry from Columbia University.
Replying to a question from the media, the doctor said he would be suspending his private practice and working with the government ful-time.
“He worked 15 years as a health systems evaluator through the Joint Commission,” the accrediting entity for hospitals and health systems in the United States, the governor’s office said.
Some 200,000 rapid COVID-19 testing kits arrive Sunday, the head of the Health Task Force, Dr. Segundo Rodríguez, estimated during the press conference. However, he admitted that Puerto Rico competes with many countries to get the tests, which has made delivery difficult.
Given the amount of confirmed cases, the medical task force coordinator said there could be 600 people infected.
The rapid tests have been ordered, the governor said, adding that anyone who has been recommended to get tested will be able to do so. “The hospitals have the test kits,” she assured.
Puerto Rico has 300 to 500 ventilators, according to medical task force, which said it awaits some 3,000 ventilators ordered, most of which are manufactured in Switzerland.
Preparing for war
A three-page document presented by the task force reveals the administration is preparing for a serious scenario.
The purchase orders for this emergency will be in charge of the Emergency Management Bureau, an entity that has been asked to acquire protective material for health workers, 2,500 ventilators and as many test kits as can be found on the market.
The Biosecurity division of the Department of Health and the task force will be in charge of the logistics of distribution of the tests throughout Puerto Rico to ensure they are delivered to the most affected areas and that the results are reported to the department for analysis and monitoring.
The the Emergency Management Bureau will be in charge of delivery of the material.
Similarly, private laboratories that carry out tests will be required to report results to the Health Department to carry out the contact-tracing process.
The Emergency Management Bureau is recommended to evaluate Hospital del Maestro so that its 185 rooms are used as a second facility in the metropolitan area for the exclusive care of COVID-19 cases.
The Health Department is already working at the Bayamón Regional Hospital as a first facility to serve those who need intensive care.
The metropolitan region is the one with the highest number of positive cases in Puerto Rico, followed by Mayagüez, Caguas and Bayamón.
According to Health Department data, as of March 22, 3,588 people are hospitalized while 2,620 beds are available.
There is an estimated 13,000 hospital beds, but at the time of the report, eight hospitals had not reported their patient numbers.
The task force recommended the governor order hospitals to stop all elective surgeries to free up the necessary staff and rooms in the event of an exponential growth in affected patients.
It also requested a waiver in the executive order that allows hospitals to acquire hardware materials to expand hospital facilities.
They also recommend that the Health Department authorize hospitals to increase the number of beds without having to wait for approval.
When asked by Caribbean Business, the governor and the Health task force indicated that the Manual and the specific Protocols containing the epidemiological estimates of possible deaths from COVID-19, would be released over the weekend.
Curiously, while these measures were announced, the governor announced the most recent Health official resignation, which until only a few weeks ago insisted this was an epidemic for which people should not worry much.
Until a week ago, the director of the Biosafety Division insisted that the tests should only be carried out on people who showed symptoms because community contamination had not been evidenced.
Once the tests were being carried out, the results revealed that COVID-19 transmission had perhaps been occurring among the local population before the cruiseship on which the first fatal victim on the island was on arrived.
“We are requiring our citizens to remain at home,” she stressed, adding that supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations, bank branches, hospitals and laboratories will continue to operate, as long as they take precautionary measures, such as limiting the number of people who enter.
Depends on your plate
The governor also announced that to reduce the number of people out on the streets, starting March 31, vehicles with license plates ending with an even number, may be used Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Odd numbered plates will be allowed to do so Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. However, the restriction does not apply for medical outings or other executive order exemptions.
“With the extension of the Executive Order, we are being stricter with the curfew. This responds to the fact that we are facing the deadliest viral outbreak in modern times and the only way to minimize contagion is by being in our homes,” the governor said.
The governor said her economic task force is working on a post-lockdown response that will focus on small businesses and the tourism sector and is evaluating local and federal funding options.
Vázquez added a new list of public employees who will benefit from her recently announced measures to prevent an economic crisis.
“Municipal police officers, municipal firefighters, employees of the Bureau of Forensic Sciences, agents of the Bureau of Special Investigations (NIE), employees of the 9-1-1 Emergency System, Medical Emergencies employees and correctional officers will receive $3,500. For their part, Internal Revenue agents and bailiffs will receive $2,000; and Correctional Health employees will receive $4,000.
“Therapists and technicians of public hospitals will receive $2,500; and public sector pharmacists, medical technologists, and resident physicians will receive $1,000,” reads her office’s press release.
Vázquez urged lawmakers to pass the measure giving officials dealing with the outbreak and are “taking a risk” their due compensation.
“We appreciate the understanding and solidarity of all Puerto Ricans. Together we will win this war against this virus,” the governor said.
The governor said earlier Thursday that if anyone has COVID-19-like symptoms—such as dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing— to call 787-999-6202 to coordinate a sample collection where the patient is sheltering in place.
In a statement issued as the governor gave her press conference, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico announced that it will present a motion in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico to adjourn all hearing and briefing deadlines in connection with the Restructuring Support Agreement for the debt of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
“The motion will be subject to a subsequent submission of a status report on or prior to May 15, 2020,” the release reads.
“Given the considerable uncertainty about the effect of COVID-19 on Puerto Rico, the Oversight Board continues to believe that the primary focus of the Government and the Oversight Board should be on helping to protect the people from the virus, and to minimize and contain the pandemic. The people of Puerto Rico need ongoing reasonable, comprehensive, and sustainable solutions to this drastic emergency,” the board said.
—Yanira Hérnandez and Rafelli González contributed to this report.