Puerto Rico’s Doctors Try To Prepare to Fight COVID-19

Graphic via Desirée Tapia for The Americano

By Cristy Marrero

March 23, 2020

With a second death confirmed on the Island, a medical task force works on a plan emulating countries that have done it right.

UPDATE: The second death from COVID-19 in Puerto Rico is a tourist from the United States. The Health Department says the victim is a 73-year-old man who was vacationing in the U.S. territory with his wife and had other health problems. The island has 31 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 69 pending test results. Police have detained and cited more than 200 people for violating a two-week curfew imposed last week, the Associated Press reports.

Jorge Falcón, an emergency doctor, and Marcia Cruz, a research doctor, are living the longest days of their careers… and the most challenging. Both are members of the medical task force created by Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vazquez, to deal with the emergency caused by COVID-19. All of its members are medical professors of the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus.

Like most people, in January both doctors were shocked to see the images of empty streets in Wuhan, the 11-million people Chinese city where the virus was first detected. Since then, both have seen closely the development of the novel virus.

“We are up to date with what’s happening on the planet. But I think in February it started to alarm us and we started having meetings to discuss what the possible impact could be. Both the doctor and I are professors at the UPR, but we were thinking about it globally, said Cruz. “And obviously we are part of the United States, we are an American territory, so we follow the CDC guidelines, and in the research area, the FDA ones. So we were already evaluating data and information that the CDC was providing, but we had not seen any cases yet,” added Cruz, an oncologist and gastroenterologist.

As of today, the island has 31 confirmed cases and two deaths related to the virus, after being on lockdown for a week. In fact, Puerto Rico is one of the first places to close down in the United States.

For Falcon, the decision of a lockdown has already saved many lives, considering how quickly the virus has spread in countries like Italy, Spain and the United States. He and his colleague pointed out that nothing like this disease has been seen in the past 100 years.

“From the point of view of clinical practice, the most striking thing about this is that it is a disease that you do not know who you are fighting against,” Falcón said. “Because you can have a patient who is asymptomatic and is infectious or you may have a patient with findings of an upper respiratory tract infection or a regular cold and be infectious. Or you can have a patient who comes to the emergency room with respiratory distress, and in the experience of my practice, you’re thinking ‘this is usually pneumonia.’ That is the most difficult part and the way it is attacking elderly patients too.”

With more than 20 years of experience, Falcón is used to follow strict hygiene measures. But now he is taking them to the highest level, because he is aware of how important it is for doctors to be safe to be able to look after patients, and not least, to look after his family. 

“Since this started I have not been able to give my daughters a kiss or a hug and that hurts a lot, but it is for their own good,” said the father of two teenagers of 13 and 15 years old.

Cruz’s daughter arrived last week from Washington D.C., where she studies Health Economics at John Hopkins Carey Business School. She hasn’t been able to see her yet.

“We just talk through Facetime. But we are going to get through this. We are going to learn from the ones that are doing it right and we are not quitting,” said the researcher.

With that goal, both doctors and the rest of the task force are working on an important effort to develop a plan that will allow controlling the spread in Puerto Rico.

“Our task force was organized following CDC recommendations for similar outbreaks,” stated Cruz. “The team is multidisciplinary and one of the areas we are working is that we must empower community leaders. The primary doctors are the first line of defense of the entire country. Another committee we have is Operation Support Logistics and Laboratory Coordinator, which is in charge of testing Puerto Rico’s medical capacity as a country. How many hospitals and beds are available? How many isolation rooms and how many patients would we need to have there? We are working on all that planning before the crisis comes.”

“These are difficult times, which are going to require difficult decisions for a difficult problem such as COVID-19. Sometimes the decisions may seem harsh, but that is what will save lives,” Falcón concluded.



CATEGORIES: Coronavirus | Puerto Rico


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