This story was reported under a partnership with CT Latino News.
SAN JUAN, PR (UPDATED Monday, 10:30 a.m.) – Puerto Rico’s Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez resigned late Friday as the island’s first three cases of coronavirus were confirmed by Gov. Wanda Vázquez. By Sunday, the number of positive cases had reached five and the governor had issued an executive order closing all non-essential businesses.
The government confirmed the first three cases Friday after waiting 121 hours for test results from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Test results are supposed to be returned within 24 to 48 hours.
“The last incidents created dissatisfaction, and that’s how I felt …” the Governor said of Rodríguez’s resignation. She named Dr. Concepción Quiñones as interim Health Secretary.
Rodríguez has been under fire since Hurricane Maria in 2017, because under his leadership thousands of people died, either directly or indirectly as a result of the impact of the hurricane. Many Puerto Ricans also said Rodríguez’s department has responded inadequately to the earthquakes that have been shaking the island since Dec. 28, 2019.
The coronavirus crisis is only the latest in a long series of disasters that are shaking Puerto Ricans’ faith in their key government institutions.
Earlier Friday, the CDC told CBS News Journalist David Begnaud that the reason it took so long for the coronavirus test results to come back from the CDC was because the patient samples were not in the “proper condition” and didn’t have “accurate documentation.”
An hour later, the Governor announced that coronavirus testing was to begin “immediately” on the island following the certification of the Health Department’s Public Health laboratory.
“It is expected that the first results will be in within the next few hours and will be notified immediately,” Vázquez said.
However, five results of coronavirus tests were negative. “In the following hours we will receive the status of the other suspicious cases,” she added.
There are six other suspected cases at the Veteran’s Hospital, but those are not managed by the government. Vázquez confirmed that four of them were negative.
In total, there are nine suspicious cases left.
In addition, the Governor announced the closure of public schools from March 16, until March 30. Cruises, including the ferry, will not be allowed to disembark onto the island.
“Tonight we learned from the CDC that a man, 71, hospitalized in San Juan, with symptoms of fever and respiratory distress, tested positive for COVID-19. Likewise, the 68-year-old Italian resident, whose test was processed today at the Public Health laboratory, was also positive for COVID-19. Her husband, 70, was held at the CDC with positive results,” she said.
The man who is hospitalized in San Juan had not traveled. At first the authorities didn’t want to test him.
Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) also took action Friday to help slow the outbreak, authorizing $160 million from the Emergency Reserve funds, from fiscal years 2019 and 2020, as needed by the government through April 15, 2020, without prior approval.
The past hours
Every minute counts in a pandemic and that requires a rapid response, but it took Puerto Ricans 121 hours to confirm whether there were any cases of coronavirus on the island. Cases had previously been confirmed in Connecticut, Florida, and New York, three states with large numbers of Puerto Rican residents, and also in the Dominican Republic, right next to Puerto Rico.
On Sunday, the Puerto Rico government confirmed the first suspected case of coronavirus. It was an Italian tourist, accompanied by her husband, who arrived aboard the “Costa Luminosa” cruise ship. Hours earlier, Puerto Rico’s Ports Authority was celebrating that the cruise ship in question had arrived at the island for the first time. The cruise came from Fort Lauderdale, but had previously been in Italy. The 68-year-old woman, who allegedly has developed pneumonia, was in isolation with her husband, but he didn’t present symptoms at that moment.
Health Secretary Rodríguez said that both the Italian tourist and her husband were tested and the results were expected to be made available within 24 to 48 hours.
During a press conference, Vázquez affirmed that they would be “more strict” with the arrival of cruise ships. “All cruises arriving at the San Juan Bay have to inform if any passenger has symptoms like fever, cough, or respiratory condition,” she said.
The next day, Carla Campos, the head of the Tourism Department, confirmed that 1,427 passengers were on board the Costa Luminosa. Of those, 1,370 and 410 members of the crew got off the cruise ship at different times of the day. “They just have a 1% chance of transmitting the disease,” she said in a press release.
On Wednesday, the governor said that a Panamanian doctor who had flown to the island for a visit while he was experiencing coronavirus symptoms. The man had stayed in an apartment in Isla Verde, danced in the Sheraton Hotel and at a salsa festival, and later tested positive for the virus. He is in isolation in Panama.
All the salsa festival attendees who sat in lines K, L, M, N and O had to be quarantined.
The government also created a hotline, 787-999-6202, to receive calls from people with coronavirus symptoms.
Since then, Puerto Rico’s government has repeated the same thing over and over again: “There are no confirmed cases.”
But this only appears to be the case because the results from the CDC in Atlanta had not arrived since being sent Monday.
Vázquez declared a nationwide emergency in Puerto Rico on Thursday, even without having confirmed cases. She also activated the U.S. National Guard.
In addition, the Treasury Department extended the deadline for individual Income Tax returns from April 15 to May 15. Any drivers whose license expires on or before March 31 has until April 30 to renew.
Most universities, including the State’s, canceled in-person classes and switched to online courses.
About the reporter
Angélica Serrano-Román is Puerto Rican journalist and has been reporting for Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism since 2019. She interned at Puerto Rico’s main newspaper, El Nuevo Día, in 2019, and has been published by the Orlando Sentinel, Univision Orlando, and Metro Puerto Rico. She also is a member of the board of directors for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.