The aftermath of Puerto Rico's twin recent natural disasters, Hurricane Maria and the string of earthquakes this past January, if nothing else taught communities on the island an important lesson: to look out for each other. That’s why when a group of neighbors in the quake-devastated southern town of Guánica learned that the new coronavirus had reached Puerto Rico, they started planning to bring tests to their neighborhood.
"To wait is to risk our lives. To wait is to not do anything and die, unfortunately. And we decided to take action from the beginning," said Luis Omar García Mercado, a community leader in Arenas, Guánica.
When the conversations about how to prevent the virus from spreading started, there were no reports of coronavirus cases in Guánica, but the volunteer organizers figured it would be a matter of time. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans in other towns were telling stories of the obstacles they faced when trying to get a test, from doctors unwilling to order a test to the sticker shock of $150 per test for those who could secure one.
The group of volunteers, called the Community Response Network, secured a grant of almost $25,000 from the non-profit Puerto Rico Community Foundation to offer the test for free.
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"We're talking about Guánica, the town with the highest poverty rate in Puerto Rico,” García Mercado said. “The vast majority of people were not going to be able to afford a test."
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Organizers divided the neighborhood into sections and assigned volunteers to call everyone in their community to ask how they were feeling and if they had any coronavirus-related symptoms. The activists also gave neighbors the number of a nurse who would screen them over the phone and refer them to a doctor if they had symptoms.
"We lead by example,” said Dr. Yadira Vázquez, the general medicine physician in charge of ordering coronavirus tests to community members. “How do I think this should be done? Let's monitor the entire community. Let's run the available tests and have someone check on any changes on people's normal physical state."
Healthcare experts have long been calling for more coronavirus tests to be made available in Puerto Rico. The island's largest newspaper El Nuevo Día revealed that the government had attempted to buy 1 million rapid tests from a construction company with no experience selling medical products, but with ties to the New Progressive Party (PNP), the party in power.
The island’s new Health Secretary Lorenzo González said the order was canceled after they learned the tests were not FDA-approved and were sold to the government above market price.
Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are under one of the strictest lockdowns in the U.S. Most people can only leave their homes to get food or medicine on certain days of the week based on their car’s license plate number.
On March 15, the government not only closed non-essential businesses but ordered a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. home curfew. Police have fined hundreds of people for violations which could cost $5,000 or lead to a six-month jail sentence, The Associated Press reported this week. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to block part of Puerto Rico’s curfew rules.
As of Tuesday, there have been 23 COVID-19-related deaths on the island and more than 573 confirmed cases, according to a count by The New York Times.
Life in the time of social distancing is harder for those living in southern Puerto Rican towns like Guánica, where earthquakes haven’t stopped and some people are still living in tents. It’s that kind of need that motivates those who can to lend a helping hand.
Volunteers of the Community Response Network have created recordings with coronavirus-related information that they blast on the streets. They also have a Facebook page that they update with advice from healthcare experts. And they’ve offered to do grocery store and pharmacy runs for those who are high risk or elderly and can’t leave their homes.
"We have to do it, we have to do it, we don't have a choice,” García Mercado said. “This is about our lives. When you asked me 'why?' Well, because we don't have a choice but to move forward.”