Governor Wanda Vázquez with former secretary of Health Department Rafael Rodríguez Mercado. (Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

After confirming the first three cases of the new coronavirus on the island, Governor Wanda Vazquez said she accepted the resignation of Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado due to “dissatisfaction regarding the latest incidents over the last few days.”

In a press conference late Friday, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced confirmed the first three COVID-19 cases on the island. An Italian couple -ages 68 and 70- and a 71-year-old local man, all hospitalized in San Juan, tested positive.

As of late Saturday, another man tested positive, bringing the number of cases to a total of four, while another five tests have been administered to people who may have the coronavirus.

The governor also announced that the public school system would close for 14 days -until March 30- and that no cruise ships, including the ferry from the Dominican Republic, would be allowed to dock on the island.

After confirming these first three cases of the coronavirus, Vázquez Garced announced she accepted the resignation of Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado. “I know that there has been a great deal of dissatisfaction regarding the latest incidents over the last few days, and I’ve felt that dissatisfaction myself. For that reason, I want to tell the people of Puerto Rico that I have accepted the resignation of the Health secretary," the governor said at the press conference in La Fortaleza.

Undersecretary Concepción Quiñonez de Longo will serve as acting Health secretary.

"Tonight (yesterday) the CDC confirmed that a 71-year-old man hospitalized in San Juan with symptoms of cough, fever, and respiratory problems tested positive for COVID-19. The 68-year-old Italian tourist, whose test was processed today by the Laboratorio de Salud Pública (Public Health Laboratory), also tested positive for COVID-19. Her husband, 70, was tested at the CDC and was also positive," said Vázquez Garced, who indicated that five other cases tested negative.

The Italian tourist arrived in San Juan Sunday at 9:00 a.m. on the Costa Luminosa cruise ship. A private ambulance took her to Ashford Presbyterian Hospital where she was hospitalized. The government did not learn of the situation until 4:30 p.m., said Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, who in recent days said the woman did not seem to have coronavirus.

In the meantime, some 1,240 passengers got off the boat, walked around Old San Juan, and some even went on a tour of El Yunque.

Tourism Company Director Carla Campos boarded the cruise ship to give the captain a plaque commemorating the first time the ship docked in Puerto Rico. Despite many warnings, she didn't want to be quarantined and even participated in a press conference with Governor Vázquez Garced.

The other case is that of a 71-year-old man, a patient of the renowned doctor Fernando Cabanillas, who complained that initially, the Health Department did not want to test him because he had not been on a trip. This patient has not left the island, so he could have been infected by a third person who did travel off Puerto Rico.

The news broke today hours after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had suggested that Puerto Rican authorities did not properly process the samples sent to that agency. This afternoon, the governor also announced that the Puerto Rican government had been authorized to perform coronavirus tests on the island and that there would be results "in the next few hours.”

"After complying with the entire validation process to have the Department of Health's Public Health Laboratory certified, we immediately began testing pending suspicious cases," Vazquez said. "The laboratory was validated to do the tests, just as they do at the CDC," said the governor, who did not specify if tests were on patients who have been waiting for their results for days or on other suspicious cases.

Although a possible case of coronavirus at Ashford Presbyterian Hospital in Condado - the Italian tourist – was reported last Sunday and Health Secretary Rodríguez Mercado said results would be ready in "24 or 48 hours”, cases were confirmed yesterday.

Yesterday, when different reporters asked the CDC about the delay, a spokeswoman for the agency said in written statements that the “goal is to test, and report results within 48 hours of all samples received in the proper condition and accompanied by accurate documentation. We understand the concerns that uncertainty can bring and are working diligently in processing all tests as quickly as possible.”

Although it appeared as a suggestion that the samples sent by Puerto Rico were not properly processed, and that could explain the delay, the CDC didn't want to go any further on the issue. Neither the Health Department nor La Fortaleza responded yesterday to questions about whether they received any notice that the tests had not been properly sent.

There are still at least seven suspicious cases in Puerto Rico, in addition to two tourists who visited the island and tested positive when they were back in their countries: a 59-year-old Panamanian doctor and a 60-year-old Canadian woman.

Of the six possible cases at the Veterans Hospital, four tested negative the governor said, as the hospital spokesperson Axel Román had already confirmed to El Nuevo Día. The other two results may be available on Monday, said Román.

Many people have voluntarily quarantined themselves since they have been in places where people who might be infected have also been.


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