Medical organizations and some physicians are claiming the national Emergency Operations Committee acted too quickly on Saturday in relaxing Covid-19 health restrictions in most of the country. They claim that the number of cases of the highly infections Omicron variant is still high and that it is too early to allow greater capacity in businesses, public offices and public events.
Some doctors say the decision to move 171 cantons, including the cities of Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, from ‘red alert’ status was the result of pressure from business groups and President Guillermo Lasso.
The COE made the decision to relax restrictions based on a report from Health Minister Ximena Garzón who told the committee that the surge of Omicron cases in the country had peaked and was on a downward trend. She said that the number of new positive cases in the week ending January 21 had dropped by more than 25 percent from the previous week and that the positivity rate of tests had dropped from 49 percent to 29 percent.
Fernando Sacoto, president of the Ecuador Society for Public Health claims that the data presented by Garzón is “erratic” and unreliable. “In many areas of the country, the number of infections was still increasing last week and I see no reason to believe we have reached a peak,” he said. “In my opinion, the COE decision was politically motivated and not determined by the facts. I do not believe the health crisis is over and I think it is too early to pull back on the rules.”
Sacoto added that the COE and Health Ministry have a credibility problem that could affect public behavior. “What they are doing will have an impact in how the message from authorities is received by the public,” he says. “People are seeing high rates of infection in their families and among their friends and are wondering why the government is saying the situation is improving.”
On Monday, Garzón defended the COE decision, claiming that many of the cases being reported are a week, sometime two weeks old. “We have delays in receiving information from hospitals and the health districts and this is causing confusion,” she said. “ I made certain that the information I delivered Saturday was up-to-date and I stand by my analysis that the Omicron surge has peaked.”
Garzón responded to complaints by some doctors that hospitals are becoming overcrowded with Covid patients. “Again, we have a statistical problem,” she said. “Yes, admissions are still rising because these lag behind test results, but they are rising slowly. It is also true that some hospitals are at capacity but it is important to consider the national picture which shows capacity at 81 percent.”
She added that the number of beds and ICU units for Covid cases are at reduced levels from earlier in the pandemic. “We have about 50 percent as many beds allocated for Covid patients as a year ago so a comparison to previous occupancy rates is not accurate. We will increase the allocation if necessary. We must also be realistic and consider the fact that the Omicron variant is much less dangerous that earlier variants. The death rate, for example, is less than 5 percent of what we saw for Delta.”
Víctor Álvarez, president of the Pichincha College of Physicians, agrees with other health professionals that it is premature to reduce health restrictions. “It is still a complicated situation although I do not doubt that we are nearing a peak in cases,” he says. “On the other hand, just because we are peaking does not mean the danger goes away. We will still suffer many more cases as the surge subsides.”
Like others, Álvarez believes pressure was applied to the COE to reduce restrictions. “I understand that the tourism sector, particularly hotels and restaurants, had a role in this decision. I understand the hardship they have endured but public health must come first.”
He added that he believes that Lasso also put pressure on the COE. “He rolled back the vaccine mandate the day it was announced and has an interest in returning the economy to full function. I understand his interest but government health entities should be able to act independently of political pressure.”