Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Isla Verde. (GFR Media)

Puerto Rico will "lose its life" if the island does not implement greater controls at airports to identify possible COVID-19 cases, and that situation could reverse any progress made with the curfew and other restrictions imposed to stop the new coronavirus, members of La Fortaleza's Medical Task Force warned yesterday.

The alarming situation the United States faces with a dramatic increase in COVID-19 infections and the consequent potential focus of infections on the island through the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Isla Verde were among the issues discussed between Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced, Health Secretary Lorenzo González, and members of the so-called medical "task force”.

Last Friday they also discussed the decrease in the use of masks as a prevention measure against the virus and faced with this situation, they urged to stress the compulsory use of masks in public places, as a key measure seeking to minimize transmission.

"The mandatory use of masks is the only thing that can contain the virus," insisted Dr. Pablo Rodríguez, director of the Trauma Hospital and member of the Medical Task Force.

According to the doctor, the relaxation of this protection in the United States has led cases to escalate to a level almost out of control in places like Florida and Texas.

"One of our weaknesses is that we have not achieved control of the airport," agreed Dr. William Méndez, director of the Surgery Department at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Medical Sciences Campus and member of the expert group.

He said the surge in cases in the United States has raised a red flag, and that in analyzing the situation, they noted that the common factor has been the lack of mandatory use of masks.

"It is convenient to implement stricter controls at airports, but it is useless to make recommendations if implementing them is not possible," he said, referring to legal obstacles since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and federal laws rule airports operations.

Méndez said the group favors implementing the Hawaii model, where starting August 1, “all travelers arriving in Hawaii from out-of-state will be required to get a valid COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their trip, and to show proof of a negative test result at the airport, to avoid the 14-day quarantine.”

"We are in the process of evaluating different things that are consistent with what we can do within the legal framework, but mandatory testing of travelers entering the island would be ideal," he said.

He added that exceptions could be allowed, such as for people who have to travel for an emergency. He stressed that, outside the legal framework, many components would have to be voluntary and depend on the person's good faith, honesty, and willingness tocooperate.

"We are trying to put the puzzle together, for example, looking at laws governing territories versus states, where we assume there are differences. That is why we are asking the governor for a legal evaluation to see the differences between Hawaii and Puerto Rico," he said.

They also discussed concerns regarding the reopening of movie theaters and childcare centers. Méndez warned that the Family Department's administrative order on the reopening of these centers left out some details, such as guidelines for the care of newborns to three- year old toddlers.

The group is also concerned about the reopening of movie theaters, Méndez said.

"We want theaters to evaluate their air conditioning systems and make sure they implement the compulsory use masks inside theaters, which may represent a problem when people are consuming food and beverages," he added.

Dr. Segundo Rodríguez Quilichini, chancellor of the RCM at the UPR, anticipated that soon the group will launch an educational campaign highlighting the importance of wearing masks.

"We are going to have a new role in this message. We know that in other states there have not been many restrictions on the use of masks and we have to work hard on the importance of using masks," he insisted.

Wilmelis Márquez, a spokesperson for Health, said the Secretary would not advance any of the issues discussed in the meeting with the governor, which Márquez described as "a normal work meeting before an administrative order.

The governor is expected to announce, at any moment, the new executive order to control the spread of COVID-19 in Puerto Rico. Past orders insisted on the use of masks, cloth scarf, or other material that covers mouth and nose, among other prevention measures, such as maintaining a minimum space of six feet between people and avoiding unnecessary crowding. Any failure to comply would carry criminal penalties and fines, including prison up to six months or fines up to $5,000.

On the other hand, Dr. Víctor Ramos, president of the College of Medical Surgeons, acknowledged that surges on the island came through people who entered through the airport and were not identified as infected with the virus.

"People are coming from Florida, Texas and other states, and from the Dominican Republic, where the virus is out of control, with 1,000 or so patients hospitalized," he said, warning that airports and ports must implement more controls.

He added that there should also be more control of the crew of cargo ships, most of which come from Jacksonville, Florida.

Dr. Ángeles Rodríguez, a former state epidemiologist, agreed, stressing that the government must protect the health of Puerto Ricans and request travelers virus testing or quarantine.

According to the epidemiologist, the protests in the United States have led to a surge, with an average age of 37 among those infected.

On the other hand, she added the consequences of the virus are "impressive and worrying". She mentioned neurological and cardiac problems, pulmonary fibrosis, and silent hypoxia or lack of oxygen.

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