National-Guard-Vaccination-PR Spc. Abner Torres Nieves speaks with a person before a COVID-19 vaccination at Pedrín Zorrilla Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Image courtesy of U.S. Army National Guard/Spc. Hassani Ribera

Long lines and traffic jams have formed during the first weeks of vaccination on the island while the government seeks to develop an appointment system to prevent crowding.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Since the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered on the island two weeks ago, nearly 40,000 people have been vaccinated against the virus.

That said, Puerto Rico has only received 27,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, of the 100,000 that were originally expected. It has received another 48,000 doses from Moderna.

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“At a national level, Pfizer cut the distribution of vaccines to 50%, therefore all jurisdictions were affected regarding the amount they were going to receive,” Sgt. Marimar Rivera, of the Puerto Rico National Guard, told The Americano.

Along with the local health department, the military corps is in charge of distributing the vaccine, as well as administering it in some cases.  

Rivera said the National Guard distributed 27,000 vaccine doses received from Pfizer to hospitals and other health institutions. Hospital professionals then vaccinate the healthcare staff.

The National Guard is administering vaccines to healthcare professionals included in Phase 1A at the Coliseíto Pedrín Zorrilla in San Juan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines.

“The vaccines the National Guard is administering are from Moderna,” Rivera said. “So far, the island has received 47,800 of those vaccines—so those are the ones we’re using.” She explained that vaccine shipments are coming in on a weekly basis.

Many healthcare professionals have waited in long lines at the Coliseíto to get vaccinated, which has caused traffic jams in the vicinity. Rivera emphasized the National Guard has focused its messaging on asking people to stay calm and understand that everyone will be eventually vaccinated.   

An additional vaccination center opened in Caguas on Wednesday for healthcare workers in the region.

The plan is to open 11 vaccination centers by mid January in municipalities including Ponce, Arecibo, Mayagüez, Humacao, Fajardo, Aguadilla, Bayamón, Barranquitas, and Guayama.

Even with protocols in place, a stylist posted on social media how she was able to get vaccinated thanks to her contacts. She has been widely criticized. 

The Health Department is responsible for monitoring whether those who receive the vaccines do so according to the phases determined by the CDC. However, José J. Reyes, major general of the Puerto Rico National Guard, said a list detailing local health professional personnel does not exist.

“In Puerto Rico, there is no registry of people who work in medical offices,” Reyes told local news outlet NotiCel. “We are asking doctors to provide an employment certification which we staple to the vaccination form. This might not prevent doctors from providing employment letters to people outside of the field. If the health department wants to investigate, the letters are there for them.”

The National Guard is also working with the government on an appointment system that would curtail long lines in vaccination centers.

“We are talking to some companies that have such programs in place,” Rivera said. “The plan has to be approved by the government; it must follow CDC guidelines. We’d like to bring a safe vaccination process up to speed.”

Phase 1B of vaccination, which includes essential workers, is supposed to begin next week. Rivera said that may change because phase 1A must conclude first.

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“According to CDC standards, you have to finish phase 1A, so the date may vary,” Rivera explained. “Because of the holidays, many people have stayed home.”

In addition to implementing the second phase of vaccination, the National Guard is working on the logistics to handle the second dose of the vaccine, which will be administered to health professionals in two weeks.