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(NEW YORK) — Just two weeks ago, Puerto Rico had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 2% — the lowest it had ever been, according to the island’s health department COVID-19 dashboard.
As of Monday, that rate (an indicator of community spread) jumped to 33%, an explosive increase that tracks with the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant and has sparked concerns among the scientific community and health officials on the island.
“This is not the time to get together, “ said Puerto Rico’s Health Secretary Carlos Mellado in a press conference ahead of New Year’s Eve gatherings.
The rapid surge of cases comes after multiple events, concerts and holiday festivities had been held on the island. Many of these events required proof of vaccination to be able to attend.
“What happened was a perfect storm,” said the president of Puerto Rico’s Scientific Coalition Daniel Colón-Ramos. “We didn’t expect to happen this fast.”
The island has seen an uptick in hospitalizations as well.
“Hospitalization cases have increased considerably in just two days,” Secretary Mellado added in the press conference.
According to the health departments dashboard, current hospitalizations are over 400 and the total death toll is at 3,310.
Puerto Rico’s increase in COVID-19 cases is on par with the rest of the nation. Other U.S. jurisdictions like New York, Florida, New Jersey and Washington D.C. have also reported a spike in cases in the last weeks.
The island’s vaccination rate is 80% one of the highest in the U.S., but 26.8% have received booster shots — a key factor in battling the omicron variant. In other states like New York health officials are also trying to encourage citizens to get the booster shot as soon as possible.
The omicron variant in Puerto Rico account for 92% of the COVID-19 cases, according to the island’s health department.
After cases started to increase, Puerto Rico’s governor implemented new restrictions including limiting capacity in restaurants, bars and theaters, requiring domestic travelers a negative test within 48 hours and demanding international travelers proof of negative test 24 hours prior to arrival even when the person has been fully vaccinated. The island’s mask mandate implemented since the beginning of the pandemic remains in place.
The government recently announced that booster shots would be required for first responders, restaurant employees and public employees that work in the educational system.
According to scientist Mónica Feliú-Mójer from the organization Ciencia PR, which focuses on scientific education in the island, the case increase in Puerto Rico reported such a rapid increase in cases is attributable to several factors, including people’s behavior.
The combination of massive events, the holiday season and a highly transmissible variant sparked the spike in positivity rate in the island, experts say.
“The holidays are culturally very, very important and everyone thought this would be a different Christmas. People were eager to get together,” Feliú-Mójer told ABC News.
Amid the surge in cases, the island’s health department announced they will not follow the new CDC guidelines that shorten the isolation period for asymptomatic patients.
“We cannot wait to see what happens with the hospitalizations before decisions are made because our healthcare system is frail,” Colón-Ramos told ABC News.
Puerto Rico’s healthcare system is still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Maria, the 2020 earthquakes and the ongoing economic depression. Some municipalities still don’t have functional clinics.
The scientific community applauded the government’s decision to take into consideration the island’s context and to not implement the new CDC guidelines.
“We need to put all of the preventive measures front and be conservative,” Colón-Ramos said. “In Puerto Rico we need to bring the cases down, we cannot wait.”
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