Rafael Rodríguez and Natalie Jaresko. (GFR Media)

The Oversight Board announced yesterday afternoon it will make available $5 million from the remaining Emergency Reserves for the government to implement prevention and preparedness campaigns in the face of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) risk to Puerto Rico.

According to Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, until this announcement, the agency depended on identifying budget surpluses to finance public awareness campaigns but they had managed to identify only $50,000.

“We are going to make available $5 million for preparedness…said the Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko at a press conference after meeting with Rodríguez Mercado and added they do not want fiscal matters to interfere with prevention and preparedness efforts.

Over the past two years, t budgets imposed by the Board include some $130 million to address emergencies. This fund already had about $260 million when the earthquake hit the island on January 7. That emergency represented about $103 million, said Jaresko.

Jaresko also said the Board will be in constant communication with the Task Force “to ensure there is adequate funding for this purpose.”

Given the fiscal responsibility put in place by the Oversight Board through budgeting policy, additional funds can and will be made available if the situation warrants incremental actions," the Board executive director said.

The Health secretary said those funds will be used to launch a media campaign on how to prevent infections, develop guidance documents for health care providers on how to manage the epidemic, and to purchase equipment hospitals need to address the emergency.

He did not anticipate when the public education campaign on the virus originated in China's Wuhan Province, might be implemented. Until yesterday, there were cases in the mainland, the Dominican Republic and several islands in the Lesser Antilles.

Rodríguez Mercado said they will use the funds for a more aggressive education campaign, noting that limited economic resources prevented the department's campaign from going beyond social media. Older people are considered especially vulnerable to the virus who are the group with less access to social networks.

"We have to reach out to schools, homes, and (the Department of) Family, who have older adults in care homes," Rodríguez Mercado said.

The official reiterated that as of yesterday afternoon, no positive cases of coronavirus have been reported in Puerto Rico, however they keep following some cases that could be suspicious or that preventively require isolation. He spoke of at least seven cases in which they implemented prevention measures in case of possible coronavirus infection.

To access the funds, the Health Department has to request them to the Office of Management and Budget. If the OMB approves the request, then it refers it to the Board for final approval.

As part of the process, the Board imposed limits on how to use the funds. Specifically, the government must use the funds for public education campaigns; strengthening the response capacity of key hospitals; the purchase of materials for health professionals, training of nurses and paramedic staff.

Similarly, funds could be used to cover the expenses of the Task Force created by the governor to address the threat posed by the coronavirus in Puerto Rico.

It is estimated that about 80 percent of people who contract the virus have relatively mild symptoms. The rest develop clinical signs. The experience in the Chinese province of Wuhan is that about 2.6 percent of those infected died as a result of this disease. The most vulnerable population include the elderly, people with a compromised immune system or those with respiratory conditions.

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