Officials of the Health Ministry and Emergency Operations Committee are denying claims that a new nationwide lockdown against the Covid-19 virus will be imposed in January. “I have heard the rumors and they are not true,” says Juan Zapata, president of the national COE. “We are closely monitoring developments with the Omicron variant but no decisions regarding new health restrictions have been made. We will continue to evaluate the data as we receive it.”
The rumors Zapata is referring to come from radio and television interviews with private doctors, as well as social media posts, that claim the decision has already been made to return to lockdown conditions similar to those ordered in March 2020. “This was decided behind closed doors at the health ministry and has not been revealed to the public,” says Freddy Iglesias, a family practice physician in Quito. “They will allow the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations to go ahead but will order the new rules shortly thereafter.”
Speaking on a Quito radio program, Iglesias says he does not necessary oppose a new lockdown but says it is too early to make a decision.
The idea of new restrictions that would confine residents to their homes is supported by some medical associations, including one in Pichincha Province. “The new information tells us that Omicron is extremely transmissible and very dangerous and we must take immediate steps to control it,” says Ronaldo Pérez, a Guayaquil internist, who posted on a medical Facebook site.
In Cuenca, emergency physician Paulina Moreno told a Radio Tomebamba audience Monday that Christmas and New Year’s events, including the Pase del Niño parade, should be cancelled and new restrictions imposed immediately. “We cannot wait until people have their fun and spread the infection. By then, it will be too late,” she said. “Omicron is mutating rapidly and could become the most deadly strain yet of the virus unless we take action.”
Other doctors disagree, some calling the alarms “hysterical” while others say more information is needed before any changes are made to health protocols.
In interviews with the newspaper El Mercurio and Radio Tomebamba, Nelly Ortega Mendoza, vice president of the Azuay College of Physicians, said that so far the Omicron variant appears to behave much like the common cold and, at worse, like the flu. “Although we need to learn more about the variant, we already know a great deal and that it spreads quickly but causes very few hospitalizations and almost no deaths.”
She adds: “The current situation is very good. At the José Carrasco Arteaga [IESS] Hospital, where I work, we currently have no patients in the ICU and the other nine being treated for Covid are recovering. I see no need for alarm.”
Quito infectious disease specialist Jose Ruiz calls the reaction to Omicron by some doctors “total madness.” He says all the information we have about the new variant suggests it causes very mild infections. “Yes, we must collect additional data, but it is absolutely hysterical to suggest we will need another lockdown of the public,” he says. “We are in the final stage of the pandemic and I would say that Omicron is part of that final stage.”
Ruiz agrees with Mendoza that the new variant acts very much like the common cold. “In fact, it has been shown that Omicron has incorporated genetic material from colds as it mutates to a less serious form — afterall, Omicron is a coronavirus, just like the common cold. I see this as the end-game of the virus.”
He adds: “I am stunned by the reaction of many in the medical community who fear news of any new variant. The pandemic is ending and it will soon be time to lift the last restrictions. Ecuador and the world have suffered enough from this thing and we must return to healthy living. Instead of spreading fear, we should be celebrating the success of our vaccination program.”
Like the COE’s Zapata, Andrea Bersosa, Cuenca-area Health Ministry director, denies there are plans for a January lockdown. “We are monitoring the local situation closely but see no cause for alarm,” she says. “We are urging the community to continue to observe health precautions during the holidays but we do not need to suspend activities.”
Considering the threat of Omicron, Bersosa believes the measures the government announced last week are sufficient for meeting the threat. “As far as the talk of secret meetings and new restrictions goes, it is only that — talk.”