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The Economy’s Revival, One Step at a Time

By on April 12, 2020

An aerial photo of San Juan (CB file)

Economic Task Force Member Details Conditions that Must Be Met to Reactivate Economic Activity

SAN JUAN — Beyond the increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Puerto Rico, the gradual return to the island’s day-to-day activities will depend on the ability of the healthcare infrastructure to attend to the serious cases that arise. And it is considering this new reality that the government administration’s task force is drafting the plan to reactivate economic activity.

“Everything will depend on the numbers of the pandemic. We have been building the return to work [plan] according to the capabilities of the health system in Puerto Rico because we have a limited number of ventilators and intensive-care beds. So we are working to avoid that relaxing the restrictions causes a new rise of the pandemic and the health system becomes overwhelmed,” explained Emilio Colón Zábala, president of the Business Emergency Operation Center (BEOC), which leads the economic team that advises the governor during this health emergency.

According to the Department of Health dashboard, as of Saturday, April 11, Puerto Rico had 667 intensive-care beds, of which about half, or 333, were available. The number of pediatric intensive-care beds reflected an even more positive trend. Out of 90 beds, 67 were available.

In terms of negative-pressure rooms, of the 338 existing ones, only half were occupied. Regarding the ventilators, which are so necessary to treat Covid-19 patients, of the 1,068 available, only 264 are in use.

However, those numbers are not necessarily reliable because the totals change daily. On Saturday, there were 360 negative-pressure rooms, but only 338 on Sunday. On Saturday, there were 682 intensive-care beds, a number that dropped to 667 on Sunday. Those numbers should be constant and reliable because they reveal nothing less than the total number of existing beds or rooms available.

Although the difference could be justified by considering that the data depend on the daily reports of public and private hospitals, when it comes down to the analysis, a precise metric should be applied

In any case, even if we consider the data as correct, Health Secretary Lorenzo González has insisted that the peak of infections should be evident in the next two weeks.

Unlike most of the United States, in Puerto Rico, stay-home orders were decreed for most citizens one week after the first suspected case was detected. While that fact may play in the island’s favor, it is also true that it is the U.S. jurisdiction that has conducted the least number of tests per thousand people. As of Sunday in Puerto Rico, less than 8,000 tests had been administered, in a population of 3.2 million.

According to the World Health Organization, before the quarantine is lifted there must be clear indications that transmission is controlled; the availability of public health services must be guaranteed; and risk should be minimized in exposed environments. In addition, prevention and control measures must be established in schools and workplaces, as well as in crowded places such as shops and restaurants. Other recommendations are to prevent the importation of cases and promote citizen responsibility and participation.

Colón Zabala explained that the economic task force will recommend opening businesses to the governor in phases, taking into account three main factors: the number of employees in the respective sector; the percentage of the gross national product it contributes to the economy; and the risk factor.

“When the governor determines it, the idea is that the different sectors will begin to be freed up according to these factors and with guidelines that will be published by the Department of Labor based on OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulation 3990[-03 2020],” Colón Zabala said.

Once an economic sector is opened, each employer must certify to the Department of Labor that it complies with the safety protocols and that it has taken care of addressing all possible risks and has put into effect the required regulations.

“We are going to be looking at the health metrics to see what the reasonable level of risk is. Depending on the behavior of infection cases and the capability of the health infrastructure, sectors may continue to be added or returned to more restrictive measures,” he said.

Colón Zabala maintained that while the release of any sector is considered, employers must become familiar with and review their internal protocols.

“It is important now that employers become familiar with the administrative and safety teams they require so that they are ready when it is their turn,” he said, while assuring that the task force will be offering workshops to employers as soon as the Labor Department issues the guidelines.

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