New Covid lockdown would be a last resort as government scrambles to find more vaccines

Jan 14, 2021 | 8 comments

There are currently no plans for a nationwide lockdown similar to the one imposed in March and April, according Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos. “This is definitely not the time for it since the ultimate impact of the new Covid variants is strictly speculation at this point,” he said. “The Constitutional Court made it clear two weeks ago that there must be a clear and verifiable threat to restrict people’s rights in the interest of public health.”

The health minister says a new state of emergency would only be declared if hospital capacity is overwhelmed.

Zevallos said the identification of cases of the UK variant in Los Ríos Province is “highly concerning” but added that it’s too early to tell how it will impact the infection rate and the country’s healthcare system.

“Our primary focus is to maintain capacity in our hospitals and clinics so we can handle Covid-19 cases as well as other health emergencies. As of today, our system is stressed but able to handle the load. We have excess capacity in most of the country and are monitoring the capacity on a daily basis.”

On Wednesday, Zevallos said that 85 percent of the intensive care beds in the country’s public hospitals are filled. “We have higher occupancy levels in Pichincha and Guayas Provinces and are watching the situation there carefully,” he said. ICU unit occupancy is at 93 percent in Pichincha and 92 percent in Guayas. It is 80 percent in Cuenca and Azuay Province.

Zevallos said another lockdown cannot be ruled out but said the government would work with the court before making a declaration. “The judges have indicated that there are circumstances in which an emergency would be justified and that is when our health system has more emergency cases, including of Covid cases, than it can handle.”

He also cited the opinion of a team of scientists in Europe who say that other variants similar to the ones found in the UK and South Africa may have developed and gone undetected since the pandemic was declared in March. “Viruses are constantly mutating and many of the mutations die or mutate again before they become widespread in the population,” Zevallos said. “The news is making the new variants sound very frightening but we have to wait and see the level of risk they present.”

Zevallos said efforts continue to procure sufficient quantities of vaccines for Ecuador. He and several health ministry staff members flew to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to meet with vaccine producers Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. “Through our talks, we have a guarantee of 50,000 doses to be delivered on Monday, January 18,” he said. The first doses will go to healthcare workers and others who are in close contact with Covid-19 patients.

“Our efforts to purchase enough vaccines for the entire population will continue but we acknowledge that we must wait in line behind countries like the U,S., Great Britain and the EU, who have invested in vaccine development,” Zevallos said. Last week, he said that slow procurement could mean that Ecuador’s vaccination program will extend into 2022.

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