Puerto Rico’s Health Secretary late Wednesday said the federal government had approved a batch of 200,000 rapid-test kits that the island is counting on to confirm and trace the spread of the coronavirus.
The announcement came hours after Health Secretary Lorenzo González had told CBS in an interview that it was unclear if the Federal Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would give its approval for the tests.
Now, González said, those tests are at a dock on the U.S. mainland and could be arriving in coming days.
González became Secretary of Health on March 26 after his predecessor, Concepción Quiñones de Longo, resigned after holding the job less than two weeks. In interviews, Quiñones said she was concerned about how the department was being run and, in particular, how a contract for COVID-19 testing was handled.
During Wednesday’s press conference, González warned that the voracious global demand for medical supplies related to the coronavirus had introduced an element of doubt into the island’s readiness. While Puerto Rico has at least two orders out for 300 additional ventilators, for example, “there are no guarantees that we will get any of those orders,” he said. “We’re competing against the world.”
The U.S. territory of 3.2 million people currently has about 500 ventilators, critical to keeping the most serious COVID-19 patients alive, González said.
González also said that Puerto Rico’s hospitals are at 38 percent capacity, giving the island some leeway if it has to deal with a surge in patients.
But González also said he discovered problems in the Health Department. In particular, there is an estimated $3 million to $4 million worth of donated medicines that had expired. While González did not provide additional details, the announcement is reminiscent of tons of government aid that was found abandoned in a warehouse earlier this year amid a rash of earthquakes.
On Wednesday, the Health Department said three more people had died and 47 new cases had been detected, bringing those totals to 11 deaths and 286 positive cases.
Puerto Rico has taken some of the most aggressive steps of any U.S. jurisdiction to try to keep the coronavirus at bay, but has struggled to ramp up testing and to do contact tracing — isolating those who may have come in contact with an infected person.
Since the first case of the novel coronavirus was announced on March 13, the Health Department, the VA Hospital and private labs have run 2,594 tests — among the lowest per-capita testing rates of any U.S. state or territory.
Puerto Rico has been under quarantine since March 16. All nonessential businesses are closed and residents have been ordered to stay at home. That measure — which includes a nighttime curfew — will run through April 12.
Despite the testing problems, that decision will save lives, González said.
“The decision to lock down was really, really good,” González said in the CBS interview. “History will say it was luck, it was the heart, it was the soul. That decision that was not driven by any significant data was the best thing for Puerto Rico.”