Image: members of the Puerto Rican National Guard wearing masks, eye protection, and white dust suits screen recently-deboarded passengers from an airplane before permitting them to enter Puerto Rico.

Coronavirus in the Caribbean: COVID–19 Update from Puerto Rico

Guánica, Puerto Rico – The Caribbean archipelago, not yet fully recovered from 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria, has been experiencing daily tremors for over 95 days on its southern shore. Now, yet another threat is making its way across the main island — the highly-infectious new coronavirus.

The first known case in Puerto Rico was an Italian tourist who had traveled with her spouse from Florida to Puerto Rico, arriving on Sunday, March 8. Though she showed symptoms of pneumonia, her husband was asymptomatic. The Costa Luminosa cruise ship departed that same evening, having de-boarded up to 40% of its passengers on the island and still carrying about 2,500 people.

The second known case was an 87-year-old veteran with underlying health conditions. He has since recovered from COVID–19 and was discharged from the hospital.

As of April 2, 316 people in Puerto Rico have tested positive for COVID–19 and 12 have died. The peak of infections is estimated to come after the first week in May, according to the new Secretary of Health Department Lorenzo González.

At first, testing across the United States was restricted to those with a recent travel history, but by March 4, the CDC had updated its recommendation that all U.S. hospitals perform tests of symptomatic patients at their discretion.

Just as in the mainland United States, non-essential businesses have been closed in Puerto Rico and residents are supposed to stay at home except for food and essential services.

One resident told Unicorn Riot that “everything is closed just like out there but since I work for the government I’m still getting paid,” in contrast to others in the private sector who are not receiving pay during this time.

However, Puerto Rico’s stay-at-home orders are stricter than in other U.S. locations. There is concern that their healthcare system, still fragile post-Maria, could easily be overwhelmed by a pandemic. Five police stations have closed this week across the main island, citing a lack of protective equipment for officers.

A COVID-related curfew starting at 9 p.m. and lasting until 5 a.m. every night since March 15 now begins at 7 p.m. after a March 30 order by Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced. The curfew will remain in effect through at least April 12. Grocery stores have been closed on Sundays, and vehicular traffic is restricted so that fewer vehicles are on the road at any given time.

FEMA has been aiding survivors of the earthquakes since January; some residents were still sheltering in group tents as of late February. In accordance with the governor’s order to shut down “non-essential” operations, the agency has suspended its in-field Disaster Recovery Center operations until April 12. FEMA asserts its personnel in Puerto Ricowill continue to work on the island to support survivors,” through answering phone calls or through internet-based aid.

Since March 15, there has been reports of increased rates of gender-based violence and femicides during the hours of curfew in Puerto Rico. One writer questioned why the murder of women in Puerto Rico isn’t considered an emergency.

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Unfamiliar sailboats circling the southern coast alarmed San Jacinto community residents when they observed the boats attempting to dock in neighboring towns off the coast of Guánica, the epicenter of the January 7 6.4 M earthquake.

Municipal mayor Santos Seda Nazario took swift action to have the boats removed from the area, as well as to remind local authorities to not allow vessels of unknown origin to dock on Guánica’s coasts, the site of the continuous quakes.

Image: dozens of sailboats docked in a bay of Culebra, one of the smaller islands in the Puerto Rico archipelago. Text: This is Culebra. A small island within the archipelago of Puerto Rico. Currently Puerto Rico is under very strict curfew and domestic travel restrictions. Meanwhile, white people from the lesser Antilles have docked on our shores thus defying our precautions. That’s colonialism. Tweet by @deviIette
Sailboats docked in a bay of Culebra. Boats have since been removed by police.

In a written communiqué on April 1, the southern mayor explained that this is no time for tourism, and much less so when such boats may be carriers of COVID–19. He added that the town has suffered enough from the earthquakes “para tener que pasar por más situaciones tristes y dolorosas” (to have to go through more dismal and painful situations).

Estamos en cuarentena y eso incluye el no recibir a nadie en nuestras costas (We’re in quarantine and that includes not receiving anyone on our shores).” — Santos Seda Nazario, Mayor of Guánica

Various access roads surrounding the municipality of Caguas will be closed starting Friday, April 3, restricting access to essential activities that have been authorized by the government.

The day before, on March 31, more than 100 health care workers in the Salud Integral en la Montaña were suspended from their healthcare jobs for 62 days. The temporary suspension could be shortened or lengthened depending on the progression of the COVID–19 crisis, according to the private non-profit hospital.

A letter sent to SIM employees specifies that since they were not being terminated, the hospital would retain the right to recall them to work without having to deal with legal ramifications of termination.

Emergency Room nurse Eric Martínez González claims that over half of the ER nurses were affected by the suspension, asking how the country could think people would want to continue on in Puerto Rico,

si están despidiendo a las pocas personas que puedan luchar contra esta enfermedad” (if they’re laying off the few people that are able to fight against this illness).

As the highly-infectious coronavirus continues to impact communities worldwide, our small organization of media-makers will provide periodic updates on a variety of topics related to the pandemic.

Cover image: Members of the Puerto Rican National Guard screen passengers for COVID–19 before permitting them entry to Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of the National Guard (Creative Commons 2.0)

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