In a Sunday night emergency meeting, the Cuenca Emergency Operations Committee reduced capacity for restaurants, theaters, gyms, markets, supermarkets, financial institutions and public offices to 30 percent. The action follows a rapid rise in Covid infections, most of them from the Omicron variant.
The COE also suspended for 15 days the operation of bars, night clubs, game rooms, social clubs and brothels. In addition, it is asking private companies to require proof of vaccination for all employees who enter their premises and encouraging telecommunting whenever possible. The Committee said it will intensify enforcement of vaccination card mandates for businesses ordered before Christmas.
The local COE action followed a Sunday morning meeting by the national COE which elevated 193 cantons, including Cuenca, Quito, Guayaquil, Manta and other major cities, to ‘red alert’ pandemic status. Nationally, only 26 cantons remain at ‘yellow alert’ status. Red alert status, according to the COE, means that Covid infections are rising rapidly in a community.
In addition, the national COE ordered all educational institutions in the country, public and private, to suspend face-to-face classes for at least one week.
The Ministry of Health reports an “explosive increase” in Covid cases and says that pressure is mounting on public health facilities and services. “In our public hospitals nationally, 84 percent of ICU units are currently occupied while 56 percent of general care beds are occupied,” a Ministry statement said.
Health Ministry Vice Minister José Ruales said he expects the rise of Covid cases to continue for at least another week. “The outbreak is on an upward curve but because it is rising so rapidly, we think it will peak within one to two weeks,” he said. “Our main concern is maintaining medical capacity to treat the most seriously affected. So far, most of our hospitals have not become congested. Fortunately, the majority of cases are Omicron, which are are mild compared to earlier Covid variants, but we need public cooperation to help limit the spread.”
Ruales said that Ecuador will exceed 50,000 confirmed Covid cases this week, up from an average of 42,000 last week and 15,000 the first week of January.
Ruales added that the current surge is hitting close to home. “Many of the employees at the Ministry are sick and many more of our family members have been infected,” he said. “It is one thing to talk about statistics and data, it is another thing when you, your wife and son are sick in bed.”
Guayaquil epidemiologist Catalina Yépez, a former advisor to the Ministry and to the Pan American Health Organization, blames a lack of social distancing on the rise in Covid cases. “People let down their guard during the holidays,” she said in an interview on a Quito radio station. “They didn’t observe common sense rules of separation and many did not wear masks. We only have ourselves to blame for the current condition.”
Yépez added that life will not return to normal until the majority of the world’s population is vaccinated. “We must consider the world scenario for the omicron variant and understand that our lack of action is postponing the end of the pandemic. As long as we have inequity in universal access to vaccines and have countries with only single-digit vaccination rates, we will not be out of this.”
Later, in an interview on the same radio station, Quito internist Jorge Hernandez disagreed with Yépez. “I don’t dispute all of the doctor’s assessments but I don’t believe she is looking at the bigger picture. Life will return to normal and this could happen within a matter of months,” he said. “What we are experiencing in Ecuador is being experienced all over the world. Omicron spreads rapidly no matter what restrictions you have and cases will decline as rapidly as they are rising. What she does not consider is that we are all human and very few of us are willing to live in a cave. We need a rational approach for dealing with Covid and, most of all, understand that we will make it through this.”