SANTIAGO, Chile – A year after the pandemic began, Genoveva Fernández Rodríguez, 59, a house cleaner in Chile, still wears her mask, uses alcohol gel and disinfects her clothes after work.
Fernández will receive his first dose of vaccine on Thursday, but as he commutes to work every day on the Santiago metro system, he finds himself actively avoiding groups of mainly young people who he feels have given up on basic measures against the coronavirus.
A massive second wave of the coronavirus is taking over Chile, despite a highly praised vaccination program that is the best in Latin America and one of the best in the world.
Millions of Chileans like Fernández are returning to the total lockdown on Thursday after health authorities this week ordered a return to Phase One restrictions. The renewed order means that 70 percent of Chile’s 19 million residents will be confined to their homes under stricter measures, such as the elimination of permits to visit supermarkets on weekends.
On Saturday, Chile recorded its highest number of daily cases since the start of the pandemic, 7,084 new cases of Covid-19, breaking the single-day record of 6,938 reported in June.
The second wave is bringing the country’s healthcare system dangerously close to breaking point. Critical bed occupancy is 95 percent, and many medical staff involved in Covid-19 infected wards for a year, sometimes working on complex cases beyond their experience levels, have taken medical leave due to the exhaustion and stress.
For many, the alarming increase in cases contradicts the government’s impressive efforts to vaccinate quickly, dosing at almost seven times the rate in Brazil.
Chile has administered around 225,000 doses a day, mostly of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, so far, almost 9 million doses, which is equivalent to 47 doses per 100 people, according to the University of Oxford in England. Only Israel and the United Arab Emirates have administered more. In contrast, the second best performing country in Latin America is Brazil, with 7 doses per 100 people.
Summer trips, Covid variants and overconfidence in vaccines
“I see young people everywhere gathering in large groups, at birthday parties or on vacations. Masks are mandatory in Chile, but I see many young people with them around their chin, eating in the subway, simply without being careful, “said Fernández.” I think they think the government is trying to manipulate them with the rules, but they just feel like they don’t care to protect me as an older person. ”
Dr. Ximena Aguilera Sanhueza, director of the Center for Epidemiology and Health Policies of Chile, which is part of the Covid-19 advisory board of the Ministry of Health of Chile, said: “Young people are the drivers of the pandemic, but the large increases in mobility during the recent summer also appear to be a major cause of the increase in infections. There are many variables, always changing. ”
The summer of Chile is from December to March.
A report from the Universidad del Desarrollo, where Aguilera is based, tracked data from mobile phones that showed large increases in people’s movements in January and February, when Chileans were allowed to travel on vacation after interregional travel had taken place. been previously prohibited, except in essential cases.
The vacation subsidy sent 5 million people moving around the country in the summer at the beginning of the year, and the cases have now dragged Chile into a medical crisis, with winter in sight.
“We are now at a critical stage and in a race between having enough intensive care units and staff for patients and the protection we hope will be obtained by continuing with vaccinations,” Aguilera said.
Dr. Claudia Cortés, vice president of the Chilean Society of Infectious Diseases, said that some aspects of the second wave were even more worrisome than the first wave.
“We expect that cases will continue to increase in the coming weeks, and this does not bode well when our hospital system is already close to collapse,” Cortés said. “In the first wave, sporadic outbreaks meant we could evacuate patients to other hospitals with more beds available, but after the holidays, hospitals are at capacity across the country.”
Aguilera and Cortés cited a combination of factors that contributed to the increase in cases, with new variants from Brazil and the United Kingdom, now confirmed in Chile, playing a role.
But there are strong suggestions that the fanfare and hype surrounding Chile’s hit show may have also caused people to lower their guard.
“The government was too optimistic and there was a mishandling of information about the good initial launch of the vaccine,” said Cortés. “It seems that people got the impression that everything is fine now, but there must be a clear message that vaccines are only part of the fight against the pandemic. It doesn’t mean that we can forget the basics like social distancing and wearing masks.
“Almost 6 million people have received their first dose, but only 3 million have received their second dose,” he said. “Peak immunity for individuals doesn’t occur until about 14 days after the second dose, and to achieve herd immunity, we need about 80 percent of the population to get to that point. We don’t expect to get there until around June or July at the current rate, and even then, this doesn’t provide complete protection against infection.
“We need to remain sensible,” Cortés said.
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