‘Hundreds, if not thousands of lives saved’: Puerto Rico leads nation’s vaccination rates

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Puerto Rico has the highest percentage of fully vaccinated people against coronavirus in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a milestone celebrated by local officials, who hail the island’s vaccination campaign as a success.

“This means hundreds, if not thousands of lives saved,” said Daniel Colón Ramos, president of the coalition of scientists that offers Gov. Pedro Pierluisi public policy recommendations on the pandemic. “There are people who are literally living their lives with normalcy who would not be here if it weren’t for these efforts.”

According to CDC data, 72.2% of the island’s total population of about 3.3 million was fully vaccinated as of Oct. 19. The U.S. territory of Guam, along with Vermont, followed. The island also has among the lowest COVID-19 community transmission rates in the United States to date. It has reported 18 cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days, a “moderate” level, compared to Florida’s “substantial” community transmission rate of 79.5 cases per 100,000 residents over the last week.

“It is no coincidence that Puerto Rico has the highest number of vaccinated and the lowest number of cases,” said Colón Ramos, who added the island had reached this goal despite the pandemic starting on the island amid a devastating sequence of earthquakes and with fewer resources available to tackle it than other places in the U.S.

Healthcare workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the Pedrín Zorrilla Colliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 30, 2020.
Healthcare workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the Pedrín Zorrilla Colliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 30, 2020.

Pierluisi also welcomed the news of the island’s high vaccination rates and pointed to a positivity rate that has declined “considerably,” to 2.1 percent.

“Puerto Rico has been successful in vaccination thanks to the measures we established as a Government and the cooperation of the people, ” he told the Miami Herald in a statement. “We continue to make progress in the fight against this virus. We will not lower our guard and we will continue working to safeguard the health of everyone.”

A multi-sector strategy

A combination of factors has led to the island’s vaccination success and low coronavirus numbers, experts have previously told the Herald, including a history of aggressive vaccination campaigns.

Puerto Rico enacted some of the strictest measures in the country when the pandemic began, including the closure of all nonessential businesses and a 24/7 lockdown that kept Puerto Ricans in their homes except for essential tasks. But mask-wearing, vaccinations and other COVID-19 combating measures have not been politicized the way they have in states like Florida and Texas, officials and experts say.

“Most of the mayors have collaborated with us since the vaccine campaign began, facilitating access, facilitating places to vaccinate and at-home vaccinations, facilitating the municipal staff who will guide us on the routes,” said Dr. Iris Cardona, the Puerto Rico Department of Health’s chief medical officer, who has also led the government’s vaccination efforts.

The government’s vaccination program kicked off in December across all the island’s hospitals, where workers received the first vaccines administered on the island. Then, in February, public and private school teachers were called to get vaccinated, Cardona said. Universities also became vaccination hubs for their school communities.

There were also meetings with essential industries, such as restaurants, manufacturing and agriculture, along with vaccination drives geared to them. Over the summer, Pierluisi instituted mandatory vaccinations for government employees, as well as employees who work at restaurants, bars, cinemas, and others.

“When you add up all those strategies, it has made it easier for us to get there,” said Cardona, who added that the largest achievement had been partnerships among multiple sectors on the island.

Lilliam Rodríguez Capó, the president and founder of VOCES, a vaccine coalition, also emphasized that a collaboration between the scientific community, civil society, and government agencies has worked to successfully push pandemic-curbing measures, like vaccinations, as well as ensure compliance and support of health measures from the local population.

VOCES organizes about 80 vaccination events weekly. With government funding and in direct coordination with health officials, the organization has administered some 360,000 doses to date through mass vaccination drives across Puerto Rico. It has also focused efforts on educating against vaccine misinformation and equipping health workers with coronavirus vaccination training.

“There is an established plan and you integrate all sectors as Puerto Rico has done, including non-profit organizations like us,” she said. “We have been able to get the message out about why it is important to get vaccinated and convince the population to accept a novel vaccine.”

‘We do not want to lose that momentum’

As Puerto Rico welcomes news of its vaccination victory, Colón Ramos, Rodríguez Capó and Cardona all said public officials and local organizations would continue working hand-in-hand to increase vaccination rates, especially in places where numbers remain low, as well as to promote second doses and boosters.

In the coastal town of Loíza, only 55% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Puerto Rico Department of Health data. In Cataño and Añasco, that number drops to 53 percent. And while about 81% of the population has received at least one dose, that leaves another 20% that has not yet gone to a vaccination center to receive a COVID-19 jab.

“The reality is that the virus is not going to calculate an average of people vaccinated throughout Puerto Rico,” said Colón Ramos.

Pregnant women in Puerto Rico, like elsewhere in the United States, have also presented a challenge to vaccinate, and the island has established pregnancy and post-birth educational programs, said Cardona. And the island is also preparing to educate parents about the importance of immunizing their young children against the coronavirus, as the likely approval of vaccinations for children between 5 and 11 looms on the horizon.

“We look at the vaccination data every day.... Maybe tomorrow we will be number 3 or number 5. But we will always be among the first,” said Cardona. “And we do not want to lose that momentum until we reach the goal of having as many people as possible in the Puerto Rican population fully vaccinated.”

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