Puerto Rico acknowledges missteps as coronavirus peak looms

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Laundromat owner Jesus Vazquez pauses before closing his shop to comply with the government’s curfew aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus, which is shuttering all non-essential businesses for two weeks in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s newest health secretary on Wednesday acknowledged a series of mistakes the government has committed as the U.S. territory prepares for a peak in coronavirus cases.

Lorenzo González, who is the third health secretary to serve in the span of two weeks, said the missteps include a lack of contact tracing and improper tracking of those who have tested positive.

“The process was deficient,” he said. “Nobody along those lines of command did what was prudent.”

González also said two hospitals, including one previously designated to receive coronavirus patients, will be investigated and fined for recently refusing to accept a patient presenting symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Puerto Rico has reported 11 deaths and more than 280 confirmed cases.

González warned the U.S. territory is still awaiting items including ventilators and protective equipment, noting that it’s competing with the U.S. mainland: “There is no guarantee any of that equipment will arrive.”

The lack of protective equipment has become a significant concern for law enforcement officials across the island.

Puerto Rico on Wednesday closed its fifth police station in a week, raising concerns about the U.S. territory’s ability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic as officers accused the government of exposing one of the largest police departments in a U.S. jurisdiction to COVID-19.

More than 150 officers are under quarantine amid a month long curfew that has shuttered beaches, parks and non-essential businesses.

“It’s not fair that the government is dragging its feet. What do they want? To be left without police officers?” said Gregorio Matias, vice president of a local police union who demanded more protective equipment.

The first police station to close is located in the popular tourist town of Rincon, where the 42-year-old wife of one officer recently died from COVID-19. Also shuttered are police stations in Aguas Buenas, Caimito, Moca and San German.

Matias said the union requested protective equipment two months ago but has barely received any items.

“We are cannon fodder,” he said.

Police Commissioner Henry Escalera told The Associated Press that officers have items including gloves and hand sanitizers, and that his department is awaiting delivery of more items that will allow him to distribute 30 face masks to each officer, along with protective gowns.

“There’s a shortage,” he said. “We hope that they will arrive.”

Puerto Rico also has closed a 911 call center, a fire station in the island’s capital, a medical emergency response office and a municipal emergency management office.

Critics are demanding the government investigate who police officers have been in contact with, including inmates and prosecutors, warning the virus could be more widespread than estimated since police have been stopping hundreds of people violating a curfew that is one of the strictest in any U.S. jurisdiction.

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