SANTIAGO – As the daily new infections numbers soar, Chile is reimposing restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Authorities continue to try to walk the line between healthcare and the economy. With school back in session and the upcoming elections in April, the government and public alike are hoping for a quick fix.
More than 4,000 daily coronavirus cases have been reported in Chile since Mar. 5, 2021, and hospitals are struggling with capacity as ICU occupancy is over 90 percent across the country. The Health Ministry attributes this spike to people’s return from vacation and a relaxation of rules over the summer period, but some blame the government for sending mixed messages.
Nine districts in the Metropolitan region returned to quarantine on Mar. 18, and medical college president Izkia Siches said the government “may have to press the red button” if critical beds continue at near full capacity. On Mar. 18, health authorities announced that another 24 districts – of which three are in greater Santiago – across the country would go back to quarantine on Mar. 20.
The current coronavirus figures in Chile are similar – if not the same – as May/June 2020.
In the Valparaíso and Biobío regions the situation is similar: Valparaíso is currently in quarantine, while the number of cases in neighbor city Viña del Mar are relatively close, and the most recent announcement on Mar. 18 put the coastal city into quarantine from Mar. 20; in Concepción, road checkpoints led commuters to choose alternatives, leading to rammed trains.
— Cooperativa (@Cooperativa) March 18, 2021
On Feb. 23, Health Minister Enrique Paris announced that, under phase 2 of the Paso a Paso plan, gyms would be allowed to reopen if they limited capacity to allow for social distancing indoors and outdoors. At the time, numbers had been declining, and reported daily cases were under 3,500 per day. The situation reversed the very next day, and coronavirus cases started rising again, hitting the 4,500-case mark by Mar. 9.
Amid the spike, the government backtracked on Mar. 11 and announced that gyms and casinos had to close if they were in districts under phase 2. Restaurants and small shops were also directed to close at 8 p.m. and the evening curfew was brought back to 10 p.m. Despite all this, authorities still allow applications for the vacation permit until Mar. 30.
Jaime Cerda, a pediatrician, specialist in public health, and professor of Epidemiology at P. Universidad Católica de Chile, told Chile Today that this new wave is a direct consequence of the relaxation of rules over the summer period. Cerda, who is also a member of the Health Ministry’s immunization board and among those behind the government’s vaccine strategy, also attributes this surge to the test, trace, and isolate strategy: “[TTI strategy] has become weaker or perhaps it has never been implemented properly.” Cerda said that the government is now paying the price for its lenient approach over the summer but thinks that there is a lot of pressure to balance public health with the economy, leading to a multifactorial process in decision-making.
What About the Vaccine?
By Mar. 17, over five million patients had received their first dose of coronavirus vaccine and 2.3 million had received the second. Most people in the country are inoculated with the CoronaVac vaccine, made by Chinese drug maker Sinovac Biotech. A Brazilian study concluded that this vaccine is less effective than earlier data showed, but Cerda said that the vaccine’s main effect is to reduce severe cases and deaths, and that it might also have an effect on transmission, “although we will see this in the next few months.” Cerda also believes that vaccinated people will probably have a lower viral load if they contract coronavirus, meaning that their chances of spreading the virus are also diminished, further protecting the rest of the population.
A recent study by Chile’s Universidad Católica indicates that the CoronaVac vaccine is 90 percent effective at producing antibodies against the novel coronavirus after the second dose, Science Minister Andrés Couve told Cooperativa on Mar. 17. This comes as positive news after the Brazilian investigation conducted last year concluded that the same vaccine offered less protection than anticipated, registering 50.4 percent effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 with mild to severe symptoms.
School Closures and Imminent Elections
The teachers’ union has insisted that schools close again, after some opened their doors for in-person instruction on Mar. 1. Union president Carlos Díaz told Cooperativa “more than 50 schools have reported cases among children and staff … more than 90 percent of public schools aren’t open, but the Education Ministry keeps calling on them to reopen.” Schools in districts under phase 1 remain shut to the public, but can reopen from phase 2 onwards, which Díaz said “doesn’t make sense.” Díaz thinks that they should only reopen in districts under phase 4. Cerda says authorities must keep a close eye on how the reopening of schools shapes the course of the pandemic.
The electoral service is due to announce the nominations for polling stations on Mar. 20, so health authorities have offered vaccines for electoral staff from Mar. 22 as an attempt to reassure them their health will not be at risk.
Former Health Minister Jaime Mañalich told T13 “if the situation doesn’t considerably improve in the next few days … I think we will need to have a serious conversation about the big elections in April.” Siches shares his opinion; she posted a video on Twitter on Mar. 16 proposing a revision of the Paso a Paso plan, “which has lost its sanitary logic,” and suggesting that the April elections might need to be rescheduled.
Dra. @Izkia Siches se refiere a la compleja situación que estamos viviendo debido a la pandemia.
Hacemos un llamado a las autoridades a evaluar el Plan Paso a Paso, que consideramos ha perdido lógica sanitaria. Debemos concentrarnos en bajar los casos y fallecidos por #Covid19 pic.twitter.com/eN2haJtIdK
— Colmed Chile (@colmedchile) March 16, 2021
Politicians remain divided over delaying the elections. Opposition member Heraldo Muñoz called the discussions “imprudent” since the October 2020 elections went on normally even under lockdown in some areas. Christian Democratic representative Gabriel Silber told Cooperativa that “it is difficult to move four elections, but if the medical college and the COVID board come up with a concrete proposal, we will review it.” Francisco Chahuán of the ruling coalition shared Silber’s view.