Given the rebound in COVID-19 cases in Puerto Rico, Health Secretary Carlos Mellado insistently urged citizens to use the mask regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not, in order to avoid returning to the restrictions that were imposed for more than one year.
The recommendation does not come in the form of an administrative order, but is based on the sustained rise in the rate of positivity to the coronavirus for at least a week and in the new cases of the Delta variant entered into the Health Department's tracking registry.
"At this time we are establishing guidelines and the Department of Health strongly recommends -to avoid having to use an administrative order- that in closed places we all have to wear a mask," Mellado said yesterday at a press conference.
Mask use continued as a requirement for those under 12 years of age and for people who have not been vaccinated, after Gov. Pedro Pierluisi decided to eliminate the executive orders that imposed greater restrictions to stop the pandemic. On the other hand, vaccinated people could remove it in open and closed places.
However, the new Health guideline applies to all citizens.
"The call is: mask, everyone. The call is for everyone to have a mask. That is the call that the Department of Health is making today (yesterday), because we do not know who has the vaccine and who does not," Mellado underscored.
The Secretary of Health was accompanied by the main medical officer, Iris Cardona, and the main epidemiology officer, José Becerra, during the update of the status of vaccination against COVID-19 and the incidence of virus variants in Puerto Rico.
Becerra explained that the lowest point of the positivity rate was 1.4 percent, but it has risen consistently to 3.6 percent.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulated that countries should impose restrictions starting at 5 percent on the positivity rate. However, that number was based on the original strain of COVID-19 and is not the main indicator when it comes to community contagion with variants of the virus, Becerra explained.
"There is a sustained increase in positivity, but no sustained increase in hospitalizations for the virus. When we see that then we can take more restrictive measures," he stated.
According to the official, the fact that a large part of the population is vaccinated changes the importance they give to the indicators of concern, and he affirmed that the positivity rate is secondary to the increase in hospitalizations and the rise in mortality from COVID-19.
For Mellado, there is still no empirical data to justify a lockdown or greater restrictions.
On July 2, the governor left in the hands of the Secretary of Health the implementation of the guidelines, directives and recommendations to the public for the management of the pandemic, and announced that he would not issue more executive orders in this regard.
However, the state of emergency remained in force, as the island continues to experience the effects of the pandemic.
The three officials siad that the situation has not worsened as a result of the COVID-19 vaccines, since at least 55 percent of the 3.2 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico completed the inoculation process. Cardona reported that 63 percent of residents have at least one dose of the vaccine.
"If we want to get out of the pandemic, we have to get vaccinated. Will vaccinated people get COVID? Yes, but [the vaccine] decreases the severity and mortality," Mellado assured.
Although it was originally proposed that herd immunity would reach 70 percent of the vaccinated population, the Health Department has discarded that number as the limit or goal of vaccination. Now, the focus is to vaccinate as many people as possible.
To achieve this, the agency is carrying out a series of initiatives to vaccinate residents. Last Wednesday, the Health Department delivered the first $250,000 in federal funds that were raffled off among the people who went to get vaccinated last week under the "#VacunarTe Paga" (Getting Vaccinated Pays) program.
"We still have a population that has not been vaccinated. We have an initiative to go house to house, we have the lottery, we have the raffle. There is no queuing. The vaccine is everywhere, the vaccine is super accessible. We must emphasize the use of a mask in a closed environment, because it is a mixed environment where it is not known who is vaccinated and who is not," the secretary stressed.
Mellado also affirmed that the agency has a robust tracking and epidemiology system to follow up on positive cases of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Cardona reported that only 0.1 percent of vaccinated people have become ill with COVID-19, but added that from January to June 18, fully vaccinated people died and that the aggravating factor to their respective health conditions was the coronavirus .
"I should add that, for the most part, they were people of advanced age, older than 60 years, older than 70 years, and most with other diseases that allow the effectiveness of the vaccine to not be complete," she stated.
Once again, Mellado reiterated that “there are two ways to protect against COVID-19: vaccination and a mask. We are saying that even vaccinated people can get COVID. The doctor (Cardona) spoke of vaccinated patients who died, but not all patients will have the same antibodies."
The National Guard, the Voces nonprofit, and pharmacies continue the vaccination process free of charge and without an appointment.