SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico is trying to claw back a $19 million deposit it paid for 1 million COVID-19 tests that it now says were never approved by the Food and Drug Administration and didn’t arrive on the agreed-upon date.
The news, first reported by El Nuevo Dia, threatens to undermine the island’s response to the coronavirus, which has killed 21 people and affected 513.
Despite adopting some of the most aggressive social distancing measures taken by any U.S. jurisdiction, the island also has among the lowest per capita testing rates in the United States.
According to the newspaper, two small companies, Apex General Contractors and 313 LLC, won the contracts to provide the government with the rapid-test kits.
Late Sunday, Gov. Wanda Vazquez acknowledged that the island had ordered the tests worth $38 million and was asking for a full refund of its 50% deposit. Vázquez blamed a previous secretary of health for making the flawed order.
But the allegations that the companies have political and financial ties to her New Progressive Party (PNP) could weigh on her efforts to win reelection in November.
The status of Puerto Rico’s COVID-19 testing has been shrouded in doubt since officials announced their first suspected case on March 8. Shortly after, Vazquez said the island had ordered 200,000 rapid test kits, but officials failed to provide additional information about that contract.
Last week, newly appointed Health Secretary Lorenzo Gonzalez told CBS television those tests had not received approval from the federal government and might never be received. Hours later, however, he said they had been approved and were on their way.
On Monday, Gonzalez told Radio Isla those tests were on the island and than an additional 7,000 tests had arrived on Friday.
Almost a month into the health crisis, the Puerto Rico Health Department has run 4,951 tests across the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people. That’s the lowest per capita testing rate of any U.S. state except Oklahoma, according to data pulled from the COVID Tracking Project.
On Monday, Gonzalez refrained from saying who had made the order but he said a large number of tests are still needed. In a nationally televised conference of Puerto Rico’s COVID-19 Task Force, he said the Health Department would no longer use intermediaries but order directly from manufacturers, “so we don’t create any more inconveniences.”
The testing woes come as the island is doubling down on its social distancing rules. Puerto Rico has been under a mandatory quarantine and all non-essential businesses have been closed since March 16. That measure, which has already been extended once, is slated to run through April 12. But health officials say the island won’t hit the peak of the outbreak until sometime between April 15 and May 8, making another extension likely.
On Sunday, Vazquez said that all businesses except pharmacies and gas stations would be closed Friday through Sunday, using the Easter Holiday to tighten the stay-at-home order.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the government, saying the executive order, which imposes fines and jail sentences for violating curfews, is unconstitutional.
But the draconian shutdown has received positive reviews in medical circles. Dr. Marina Del Rios, an associate professor at the Department of Emergency Medicine with the University of Illinois in Chicago, said the island was right to move early and forcefully against the coronavirus.
Rios is also a member of the “Doctoras Boricuas” — a group of Puerto Rican medical professionals that work as informal advocates for the island.
“You can criticize the government of Puerto Rico for many things but (Vazquez) did this right,” Rios said of the lockdown order. “That could be the saving grace of Puerto Rico.”
The fact that it’s an island makes the measure even more effective. On the U.S. mainland, the uneven state and municipal responses to the coronavirus could potentially weaken any measure taken.
While Illinois has taken strict measures to ensure social distancing, neighboring Missouri hasn’t, she said.
“It’s like having a section of the pool being the peeing section,” she said. “Eventually it will make it to the other side.”
If the island does see an uncontrolled surge in COVID-19 cases it could be in trouble.
For the majority of people affected by the coronavirus it produces nothing but mild, flu-like symptoms. But for a significant minority — particularly the elderly and those with preexisting conditions — it can cause respiratory problems. And in extreme cases, ventilators are required to keep patients alive.
Health officials say there are about 500 functioning ventilators on the island and it could need up to 3,000 if the cases spike.
Puerto Rico has been hounded by perceptions of corruption and incompetence. During a rash of earthquakes earlier this year, citizens discovered an underutilized warehouse of first aid supplies, many of which had expired.
Since Gonzalez, the health secretary, assumed the position March 26, he said he’s found at least two stockpiles of expired medicine and medical equipment worth millions of dollars. On Monday he said that U.S. law enforcement may be investigating those cases.
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