Mere hours after assuming his role, the designated secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Health, Carlos Mellada, outlined in coordination with Gov. Pedro Pierluisi's administration the course of action to return to normal, reopen schools, and establish a "coherent" plan against COVID-19.
In an interview with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL, Mellado stated that the plan is tied to efforts to increase the number of COVID-19 detection tests, supplying vaccines, and treating infected patients.
Pierluisi —to start— ordered him to create, design, and execute a program of mass detection. Executive Order 2021-001, signed on Saturday, establishes that the design and execution of this program must include a strategy to conduct tests on remote or hard-to-access areas on the island.
Mellado stated yesterday that the executive orders on social behavior will also be modified according to the situation.
"The important thing here is that the order can last no less than a month, because in two weeks we will see the results and we will obtain the result that it may or may not have had, and it is important for that to be understood. The governor is doing it that way. Certainly, in this term we have many tools to be able to combat COVID-19," Mellado said.
Pierluisi has affirmed that the government should make greater efforts in the task of carrying out tests and identifying infections with the disease.
As informed, the new administration is already developing strategies to combat the coronavirus, and a new executive order in regard to the pandemic should be in effect on January 8, thereby replacing the current mandate.
However, Pierluisi had stated that he would not amend the executive order established by then-Gov. Wanda Vázquez, which establishes a curfew and island-wide lockdown on Sundays. He expects to announce the new executive order on social behavior this week.
The new government aims to project that they are doing "all possible efforts for Puerto Rico to return to normal, for businesses to operate within a protection margin for clients and within the specific and punctual goal that the governor has always said, which is to be able to reopen schools in an organized way," Mellada said.
Part of the new government's strategies are to develop plans on how to impact the municipal islands of Vieques and Culebra to test for COVID-19, identify positive patients, and administer the required treatment.
"Once we are there, look for people who have not had access to the phase 1A vaccine and be able to implement vaccination," he added.
The local government has around 1,840 doses for antibody treatment, which was the one administered to U.S. President Donald Trump. Similarly, it is expected that the doses of the vaccines developed by Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna will begin to arrive to Puerto Rico on a more recurring basis.
"If we identify positive patients, we can treat them and flatten the hospitalization curve a little more, in addition to the vaccine, certainly. This effort has to continue with an educational campaign for people, bringing a motivation that we want to reach that 70 percent desired by all to have what is called herd immunity," Mellado stated.
The vaccination process will continue being carried out by phases
He acknowledged that 70 percent is a challenge, but assured that the executive order expedites the process, in addition to forging partnerships with different agencies.
"I want to form meetings with the different sectors of the clinical laboratories to see how they can also help us. We know that there are laboratories in municipalities that are conducting the tests, but what we want is to amplify that number of tests because what is called an epidemiological photo in Puerto Rico would be important, to know how many cases exist at the moment and one of the clear objectives is to be able to also treat patients," he asserted.
Mellado said that he has been in communication with the governor to discuss these initiatives. He mentioned that he has participated in constant meetings with the governor in order to meet the established goal of vaccinating, and having fewer COVID-19 cases and greater access to tests.
"It is important that we have all these measures so that we can know which are the municipalities of high incidence and then be able to establish with the Secretary of Education (Elba Aponte) a coherent plan to open schools, because one of our goals is to return to Puerto Rico back to normal, but we need to make greater efforts," Mellado affirmed.
As of press time, the local Health Department has reported 1,289 deaths supposedly confirmed to be caused by COVID-19 and 73,957 confirmed cases; these numbers are accumulated since the beginning of the pandemic, around mid-March. Although the agency's main coronavirus website lists greater numbers, its coronavirus dashboard clarifies how many of these are probable cases, therefore lowering the tally for confirmed cases.
The most recent population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau —July 1, 2019— indicates that Puerto Rico has a population of roughly 3.19 million people. Per this estimate, since the beginning of the pandemic the confirmed deaths amount to roughly 0.0004 percent of the population, while the confirmed cases represent 0.02 percent of the population, although the latter could be even lower if some individuals tested positive different times throughout the virus outbreak.
Signs Six Executive Orders
Right after his inauguration, the governor signed six executive orders, the first of them being related to COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
Likewise, EO 2021-002 orders the departments of Justice and Public Safety to create an agreement with the federal prosecutor to process corruption and white-collar crimes, among others.
Moreover, Pierluisi signed EO 2021-003 to decree measures of fiscal responsibility and budget control, while EO 2021-004 bans expenses on official pictures of the governor and agency directors on government properties.
The other two executive orders outline the structure of the governor's office and appoint the manager of the Governor's Office.
- Reporter Giovanna Garofalo contributed to this story.