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Puerto Rico Enforces Strict Stay-At-Home Order

NOEL KING, HOST:

Puerto Rico has instituted some of the strictest measures to contain COVID-19. Governor Wanda Vazquez has more than 3 million people under a stay-at-home order. Here's NPR's Adrian Florido to explain why.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The governor's decision to shut down businesses and order people inside was driven by necessity. The island's health system collapsed after Hurricane Maria and remains fragile. In recent days, government trucks hauling giant speakers have fanned out in cities and across the countryside, like this one in the mountain town of Jayuya.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "For these two weeks," the message says, "wash your hands for 20 seconds, and do it frequently."

The trucks move through streets gone desolate. Beaches are empty, too. This weekend, though, rumors spread on social media that the governor was going to close supermarkets. Panicked crowds flooded grocery stores. The governor, furious, went on Facebook live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA VAZQUEZ GARCED: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Highly irresponsible," she said. "Whoever sent those messages has been highly irresponsible."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I don't want anyone in the streets," she said. "We have to stay home to protect ourselves. Just look at what's happening in the U.S." The governor has sent the police out to enforce her order. They've arrested more than 200 people.

DANIEL COLON-RAMOS: The sacrifices that are being asked from the people that are necessary at this point, these steps are now necessary because the steps that were necessary were not implemented early on.

FLORIDO: Daniel Colon-Ramos is a professor at Yale Medical School and active in Puerto Rico's scientific community. He said one of the biggest missteps by Puerto Rican officials was around testing for the virus and officials' plans to rely on the federal government.

COLON-RAMOS: They said that they didn't need that many tests, that the tests didn't need to happen in the island - that they were just going to send it to CDC, that the CDC was going to come turn it around anywhere between 24 to 48 hours.

FLORIDO: It took close to a week to get the results back for the first three tests. They came back positive. The governor was criticized for losing precious time to contain the virus. In the last week, as the global crisis has exploded, officials have started ramping up testing locally. As of Sunday night, the island had 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death.

The governor has taken other steps to contain the virus. She sent the National Guard to take the temperature of passengers arriving at the airport in San Juan. She designated a hospital in the city of Bayamon to tend to coronavirus patients. She formed a task force of respected doctors to advise her, and she fired her health secretary. He had downplayed the coronavirus threat and overseen the health system's poor response to Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands.

DOMINGO MARQUES: Most of the deaths right after Maria were elderly people, you know, that couldn't get the proper medical care. And that's something that might happen again.

FLORIDO: Domingo Marques is a professor at San Juan's Carlos Albizu University. He researched the hurricane death count, and he said the health system has not fully recovered. It also has no more than a few hundred hospital beds suitable for treating coronavirus patients.

MARQUES: And that's not enough, right? I mean, if we get a spike in the virus and we get a lot of people infected, that's not going to cut it.

FLORIDO: Professor Marques worries if that happens, Puerto Rico's health system will quickly be overwhelmed.

Adrian Florido, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "VEGA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.