Puerto Rico official says it’s unclear if 200,000 coronavirus tests can be used

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s health secretary said it’s still unclear if the 200,000 rapid tests the island ordered to confirm and trace the spread of the coronavirus can be used at all.

In an interview with CBS posted early Wednesday, Lorenzo González said his office was trying to determine if the tests — which may arrive over the weekend — have approval from the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are sending some information hoping it will be evaluated by the federal entities,” he told CBS reporter David Begnaud. “If they are not approved, we are not going to use it and we will have to get the monies back.”

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, has taken some of the most aggressive steps of any U.S. jurisdiction to try to keep the coronavirus at bay but has struggled to ramp up testing and to do contact tracing — isolating those who may have come in contact with an infected person.

González became secretary of health on March 26 after predecessor Concepción Quiñones de Longo resigned after holding the job less than two weeks. In interviews, Quiñones said she was concerned about how the department was being run and, in particular, how a contract for COVID-19 testing was handled.

González said the global scramble to find tests may have led officials to move too quickly.

“Everybody gets very anxious, everyone wants to do the right thing for their state or country,” he said. “Whatever (tests) come into play, people want to grab it. Their desire to do the right thing for the country could lead to access to something that is not the right thing to do.”

The government has not said what company or country was providing those tests, and the Health Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The testing delays come as coronavirus cases continue to creep up in Puerto Rico. On Wednesday, the Health Department said three more people had died and 47 new cases had been detected, bringing those totals to 11 deaths and 286 positive cases.

Since the first case of the novel coronavirus was announced on March 13, the Health Department, the VA Hospital and private labs have run 2,594 tests. By some counts that’s the lowest per-capita testing rate of any U.S. state.

Puerto Rico has been under quarantine since March 16. All non-essential businesses are closed and residents have been ordered to stay at home. That measure — which includes a nighttime curfew — will run through April 12.

Despite the testing problems, that decision will save lives, González said.

“The decision to lock down was really, really good,” González said in the interview. “History will say it was luck, it was the heart, it was the soul. That decision that was not driven by any significant data was the best thing for Puerto Rico.”


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