COVID-19 Financial Impact

As of Sept. 4, 2020, Puerto Rico’s government had collected 29.31 percent less income than for that same period in 2019.

If things stay the way they are, our government will collect $2.9 billion less this fiscal year than it did the previous one. To put that amount into perspective, it is equivalent to the central government’s annual budget for the Health Department ($1 billion), Public Security ($1.3 billion) and the University of Puerto Rico system ($560 million) combined.

Could you imagine having to close down these three public entities in June 2021 because the government has insufficient funds to operate them? The more realistic scenario would be that the government would have to cut $3 out of every $10 in every agency, supplier and pension budget. This would cripple the public sector and greatly affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of government employees, retirees and individuals in need.

I am therefore extremely worried when I read comments made by high-ranking officials of the Health Department and the Science Trust supporting another lockdown. Just a couple of days ago, the Secretary of Health told reporters at El Vocero that he would consider a complete closure of the economy if COVID-19 cases on the island continued to increase, because according to their risk model, as things stand, we are already in code orange.

I figure the question we must ask ourselves is, what does this model measure and how exactly does it work?

One of the four variables used by the model is the percentage of ICU units being utilized. According to the interview in which the Secretary of Health called for a complete lockdown, 66 percent of all ICU units are being used on the island and the model’s limit is 70 percent. The problem with this data point is that most of the ICU units are being utilized by people with diseases other than COVID-19. In fact, only 73 of the 464 ICU units being utilized are being occupied by COVID-19 patients and this amount has been stable for months. Therefore, the problem isn’t really that COVID-19 cases are increasing, but even under normal circumstances, the island does not have enough reserve ICU units and the government has done nothing over the past six months to fix this.

Another of the variables used by the model is the positivity rate. This rate measures the average number of positive COVID-19 test results over a predetermined period of time. The problem with using this variable to determine when to open or close the economy is that in Puerto Rico, we still have limited testing availability. This means that generally, tests are only performed on symptomatic people or individuals who have been close to someone who has already tested positive.

It is more than obvious that if they only test people who have been predetermined to have a high risk of being infected, the average number of positives will be extremely high.

For this variable to be effective, testing has to be widely available among the population. In fact, the Health Department should be randomly testing a large sample of the general population in order to obtain an accurate positivity rate measure. This is not merely my interpretation of the data, the World Health Organization has stated that a sustained high positivity rate is a sign that tests are only being performed on high-risk populations and that testing in other areas (the general population) has to be increased.

My point in this Op-Ed is not to fight against all types of controls or even against a possible future lockdown. What I am trying to say is that we have to ask our government officials to be honest with the data they present to the public, that they have to fully understand how their models work and their limitations.

Scaring people into believing that the island has to close down because ICUs are close to capacity because of COVID-19 when only 9 percent of beds are occupied by patients with the virus is using data in an irresponsible way. The right thing to do would be for the Health Department to present a plan to increase the amount of ICU units available on the island over the next three months, so that our health system does not collapse if cases slightly increase.

We all fear getting infected with this virus or even worse, having a loved one get sick. But we need to learn how to manage and live with this risk. If we don’t, the economy will continue to collapse and in less than a year, we will have even greater suffering because the government won’t have the resources to provide essential services.

In March, the government’s income was up 2.24 percent, it went down 7.84 percent in April and has continued to tumble every single month since then. Health officials need to remember that the economy also has an impact over peoples’ mental and fiscal health.

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