The Health Department must act quickly and transparently in all efforts related to the challenge of preventing COVID-19 and to control the spread if there were a case confirmed in Puerto Rico. This response is essential to fight confusion, misinformation, and anxiety that can emotionally, socially and economically affect different sectors.
Ensuring appropriate coordination between the central government and federal authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and regulatory agencies for air and sea operations, is also crucial in the face of a new health challenge that should not be underestimated.
The fast global spread of COVID-19 makes it imperative for the island´s health authorities to keep communication channels that ensure an exchange of information leading to apply the appropriate protocols to immediately assist and treat patients showing suspicious symptoms.
Doctors have expressed concerns regarding the government´s slow response in testing patients with symptoms linked to COVID-19. The Health Department must respond responsibly and apply uniform criteria to help ensure adequate recovery for any citizen in risk conditions. Conducting relevant tests through good communication between doctors and the Epidemiology Office must be a simple step to ensure timely treatment as appropriate and other relevant health controls.
As an agency tasked with the mission of guaranteeing public health, the agency, through Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, has full legal powers to implement protocols for the uniform management to control infectious or epidemic diseases and to modify prevention measures, according to emerging circumstances.
The agency must also establish proper communication with the media. Citizen concerns about COVID-19 have grown following Sunday night's press conference regarding an Italian tourist who arrived on a cruise ship with suspected coronavirus symptoms hospitalized in San Juan waiting for the results of the tests. Disarticulation projected by the Health secretary when explaining the government's handling of the case coupled with the agency's recurrent communication deficiencies, which include the notable indifference and disdain by its press officer when faced with requests for information or interviews on issues related to COVID-19 and other essential public health issues.
The Health Department, on the other hand, has to exercise its leadership to issue precise guidelines to the entire health sector on prevention management in the face of the COVID-19 threat and contingency plans for each hospital center. It is key to review with medical teams and support staff the measures to treat patients with respiratory conditions or symptoms similar to those of the new strain of coronavirus. It is also convenient to examine essential supplies for the appropriate health response in hospitals or offices. Spaces should also be prepared for the potential isolation of any patient with a suspected case.
Perceptions by health sectors pointing to the government response to the COVID-19 threat as slow and deficient must be responded with actions that demonstrate compliance with the protocols in the face of this threat. These concerns by health professionals and citizens can be dispelled with effective communication that dismantles disinformation which leads to fear and inaction.
Poor government management in key entities like the Department of Health has negative consequences as proved in difficult periods such as the Hurricanes in 2017. The agency has a great responsibility and opportunity to restore confidence and security to our people.