This story was reported under a partnership with CTLatinoNews.
The response to the coronavirus pandemic in Puerto Rico is managed by a leaderless Health Department, which has performed only 776 tests in the last two weeks.
Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez on Thursday named Dr. Lorenzo González, who served in the same position from 2009 to 2011, after the resignation of the acting Secretary of the Health Department, Dr. Concepción Quiñones de Longo. She held the position for two weeks after former Secretary Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado’s resignation on Mar. 13. The island has had three health secretaries in one month while confronting COVID-19.
Vázquez also indicated that Puerto Rico’s state epidemiologist, Carmen Deseda, resigned. She offered no further details.
“She is no longer in the Health Department,” she told an El Vocero reporter. “I do not know if you knew this.” The governor never previously announced this publicly in a press release or a news conference.
On Monday, Vázquez informed citizens that the island’s curfew and lockdown will be extended to Apr. 12 and with longer hours beginning March 31 — from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies, banks, laboratories and hospitals, as well as other essential businesses, will continue to operate on a limited basis. After March 31, supermarkets will be closed on Sundays.
In addition, the number of people driving on the streets will be limited, using even and odd license plate numbers on alternating days of the week. These determinations will not apply to medical appointments, health situations or essential business employees.
As of Thursday, the island had 64 positive cases of coronavirus with 335 pending cases. A total of 377 results came back negative. So far, Puerto Rico has had two documented deaths and one recovery from COVID-19. In addition to the Health Department’s laboratory, the Veterans Hospital and some private laboratories are testing patients.
Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, by its acronym in Spanish) reported that prior to her apparent departure from her position, the state epidemiologist has been providing incorrect, inconsistent, and imprecise information about the coronavirus pandemic. CPI fact-checked her statements since Feb. 26 and found numerous inaccuracies. CPI also reported that Carmen Deseda has no formal academic training as an epidemiologist.
In order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a request from Gov. Vázquez to restrict and redirect all commercial flights to Luis Muñoz Marín Airport (LMM) and charter flights to Aguadilla, Isla Grande and LMM. Cargo flights are excluded.
Thousands of passengers are receiving medical testing and screening in the triage area at LMM. Some have been sent home to self-quarantine. None were sent to a hospital for treatment.
Over the weekend, Housing Department Administrator William Rodríguez announced the closure of shelters opened after the earthquakes in the southern area of Puerto Rico. The government said that refugees were transferred to safe places. However, there are still eight shelters that are not administered by the agency that house 139 earthquake refugees who could be at risk for contracting COVID-19 because of their circumstances.
Economic Impact On A Bankrupt Island
On Monday, Gov. Vázquez announced a $787 million economic plan to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus. The package will be funded with $500 million from the Commonwealth fiscal year 2020 surplus as a special appropriation, $157 million as a reapportionment from the general fund within the current fiscal year, and $131 million from federal funds.
Vázquez affirmed that about 134,200 workers from government agencies and public corporations will continue to receive their paychecks starting from March 12, and 170,000 self-employed workers will receive $500 in cash. The subsidies are to be sent starting this week, according to Vázquez.
Also, the Puerto Rico Department of Economic Development announced an incentive of $1,500 for small and medium-sized companies that have ceased operations in the midst of this crisis. To receive the incentive, companies must have 50 employees or less and not qualify for federal aid.
Tax Day was postponed until July 15.
But some allocations appear to be uneven in the worldwide health emergency. For example, the government plans to make $30 million available to public hospitals to reimburse them for the purchase of equipment and supplies in response to the pandemic, but it is awarding eight times that — $240 million — for the purchase of tablets, software and training for the Education Department.
“This would be one of the most comprehensive and ambitious relief packages that have been announced to deal with this crisis. These are much more comprehensive measures than those offered throughout the [U.S.] Nation,” she stated.
“For example, California announced a $500 million package and Washington State a $200 million package. We announced a first package of almost a billion dollars for our people on the island, achieved with the Fiscal Oversight Board,” Vázquez added.
The historic $2 trillion fiscal rescue package to shore up the U.S. economy due to the coronavirus pandemic also benefits Puerto Rico with access to $1,200 for residents earning up to $75,000, a stabilization fund and aid for unemployment and small businesses. The U.S. Senate approved it unanimously on Wednesday. Action in the U.S. House is pending.
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.