Still a long way to go, but spread of Covid-19 slows in the Dominican Republic

Coronavirus Disease 2019 Rotator Graphic for af.mil. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario “Charo” Gutierrez)

Medical authorities say there is a slight but clear trend for less Covid-19 cases in the country. Nevertheless, Public Health Minister Plutarco Arias says it is up to President Luis Abinader to decide when to reduce or eliminate the curfew. He said that for now there is an increase in patrols to discourage gatherings and enforce the curfew. The patrols are distributing face masks to those who do not have them. The use of masks in public places is mandatory in the Dominican Republic.

Dr. Arias made the remarks during the Tuesday, 15 September press conference on Covid-19. He said that most cases are traced to friends’ meetings at the “colmadones,” the street bars where people take off their face masks for a drink and chat with friends.

Dr. Arias explained a joint government commission would decide on flexibility with the curfew. “I understand it should be left as it is. It is a decision up to the high command and the President. We seek a balance,” he said. The curfew expires on 27 September. First Lady Raquel Arbaje has tweeted that she favors reducing the curfew hours so these are 9pm to 5am, instead of 7pm to 5am.

Meanwhile, there are signs of progress. Dr. Arias says that the demand for the PCR tests in private labs is down. “If there were before 8,000 persons seeking PCR tests, today there are only 2,000,” said the Minister. Lines are shorter at the labs, he explained. He made the remarks during a Tuesday press conference. He was accompanied by the key health officers, including the head of the National Health Service Mario Lama; the head of the Epidemiology Department Ronald Skewes Ramm, and the spokesman for Covid-19 Eduardo Perez Then.

Dr. Arias says that deaths are also significantly down in the country. He explained this is because the health authorities are carrying out tracing operations to catch and treat the cases early. He recommended persons with one or two symptoms to get tested so the disease can be treated early. He said he had treated 105 cases successfully when PCR tests were scarce and he resorted to order an alternate D-dimer test or a ferritin test.

He explained that the deaths that are now reported are from the presidential and congressional election campaign days. The campaigning lead to a spike in cases when the curfew was removed.

He said that the Ministry of Public Health is working with the Central Electoral Board (JCE) that handles official death statistics to match the difference in cases and purge the 20-year old under-registry of diseases. He insisted that none of those deaths have occurred after 16 August, the start date of the Abinader administration. At the press conference, journalist Altagracia Ortiz said that the JCE lists around 3,000 people have died due to Covid-19. The Ministry of Health says the death toll for 14 September is 1,998. The difference could be that the Ministry of Public Health accounts for those who had tested positive for Covid-19.

During the press conference, the Public Health Ministry announced a new “more friendly” bulletin format as of Epidemiological Bulletin #180. The new format presents only the most important indicators. Those interested in additional details need to search for these on the new platform that is part of additional efforts to make available Dominican health statistics both on Covid-19 and other illnesses in realtime. The Ministry did not share the online address during the press conference.

He announced the press conferences would be held once a week from the Ministry of Health situation room.

For the Tuesday press conference, Dr. Arias reported on the advances that have been made:
• Additional health budget of RD$15 billion
• 237,000 Dominicans affiliated to the government health plan in the first 15 days of government. The goal is to register 2 million by December 2020.
• 21,310 military and police at the service of the community. These are reinforcing the use of face masks, physical distancing and the respecting of curfew.
• Test results are much quicker. Ministry of Public Health is sending vehicles to pick up PCR tests from regional hospitals and people are getting their results in 24-48 hours from the governmental Dr. Defilló National Laboratory. When taking over, the government found 15,000 tests that had expired and never were processed.

Dr. Arias said that efforts to find patients when they first get sick has reduced the number of seriously ill patients. He said at the start of government, patients in intensive care units were 60% of ICU capacity. Today the number has dropped to 40% of ICU units. Dr. Arias explained the combing of sectors, working with city government and city neighborhood boards has made it possible to detect those that are sick before they become seriously ill.

Dr. Arias says the Dominican Republic “is on the front row for when vaccines become available.” He spoke of a purchase order for 12 million doses that is enough for half of the Dominican population if two doses are needed. He said first to get the vaccination are health care workers, persons with chronic sicknesses and low immunity, and those 60 years old or more.

Meanwhile, flu vaccinations will be available as of October for children and population groups most vulnerable to influenza. He said this is to avoid that the flu be confused with Covid-19.

Also speaking at the press conference, Dr. Mario Lama, director of the National Health Service (SNS) explained why the Dominican authorities are conservative. He explained Covid-19 is a disease that moves in waves, “it comes and goes.” He said: “You have to be prepared and not let the guard down. We are in a moment of impact mitigation. We are not in a moment of resolution. We are waiting for other spikes and we must be prepared,” he said. He said until a definite cure, prevention method or vaccination treatment is out so that we can return to normal.

Deputy Minister for Collective Health, Dr. Ivelisse Acosta said that there will be case tracing and prevention operations this week in the provinces of Elias Piña, San Juan de la Maguana, Santiago Rodriguez, Espaillat (Moca), San Pedro de Macoris and Hermanas Mirabal (Salcedo). This is in addition to operations in the Simon Bolivar, 27 de Febrero, Las Cañitas and Los Jardines low income neighborhoods in Greater Santo Domingo.

Others that participated in the press conference were Vice Minister Ivelisse Acosta, director of Epidemiology Department Ronald Skewes Ramm, Department; Santiago Hazim of Senasa, and Eddy Perez Then, Covid-19 spokesperson for the government.

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