Coronavirus

Covid point man defends strategy, claims ‘sabotage’ by political and other groups

López-Gatell has no regrets over decisions made to combat the virus

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The federal government’s coronavirus czar has defended the response to the pandemic, asserting that the strategy implemented is the technically correct one despite Mexico having the fourth highest Covid-19 death toll in the world.

In an interview with the newspaper La Jornada, Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell stressed that the strategy adopted to slow the spread of the coronavirus is based on scientific and technical evidence.

Despite that, political, economic and social groups have “sabotaged” the government’s strategy, he claimed.

Although the government has been widely criticized for not testing enough, only recommending rather than enforcing a nationwide lockdown and not strongly advocating the use of face masks, the coronavirus point man said he didn’t regret any of the decisions he and other health officials took in response to the Covid-19 threat.

Mexico’s high death toll, which López-Gatell, President López Obrador and others have blamed on the high incidence of diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, is partially attributable to a shortage of intensive care physicians, the deputy minister said.

Asked what the lessons of the pandemic are, López-Gatell responded that there are many but added, “We know they are temporary because Covid-19 is a moving target.”

“In January it was thought that the virus would be similar to influenza and that’s not the way it has been. [One lesson is] the importance of acting based on scientific evidence and not out of political pressure nor the aspiration to please society,” he said.

López-Gatell acknowledged that some political and economic actors as well as certain media outlets have been critical of the government’s pandemic management, something he said he didn’t expect.

“I innocently thought that there would be human generosity but [certain people] have been sabotaging the efforts of government and society to control the pandemic,” he said.

Among the critics of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis have been the governors of some states as well as six former federal health ministers.

In a document published last week, ex-health ministers who served in the administrations of former presidents Miguel de la Madrid, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto criticized the federal government for its pandemic response, especially its reluctance to test widely and its “anti-science resistance” to the use of face masks.

'I confess I was optimistic,' says López-Gatell of fatality projections that proved to be way off.
‘I confess I was optimistic,’ says López-Gatell of fatality projections that proved to be way off.

They called for a national testing campaign in order to obtain data that would give a better indication of how prevalent the coronavirus currently is and where it is spreading.

López-Gatell, who has previously described widespread testing as “useless, impracticable and very expensive,” once again responded to the former health ministers’ suggestions after saying sarcastically last week that their report was full of “magic formulas.”

“I expected a technical document with a scientific bibliography and evidence about testing,” he said.

“The reality is that there is nothing that clearly indicates the relation between the number of tests and the quality of infection control,” he added.

Asked whether Mexico has had enough testing kits to ensure that the sentinel surveillance system, in which coronavirus data is collected at 475 different health care facilities and extrapolated to provide an estimate for the total number of cases across the country, López-Gatell responded:

“We’ve never run out of tests. The sentinel surveillance [system] works.”

Despite that assertion, the federal Health Ministry hasn’t provided an estimate for the total number of coronavirus cases in Mexico for months. In the early days of the pandemic, López-Gatell said it was estimated that there were about eight undetected cases for each confirmed one.

If the same estimate applied today, around 6 million people in Mexico would have had Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

That figure is based on an accumulated case tally that increased to 668,381 on Sunday with 4,408 new confirmed cases reported.

The Health Ministry also reported 217 additional Covid-19 fatalities, lifting the death toll to 70,821.

As Mexico’s case tally is widely thought to show just a fraction of the real number of infections, the Covid-19 death toll is also believed to be significantly higher than official statistics show. The lack of testing is the main reason for undercounting both case numbers and deaths.

López-Gatell’s predictions about the number of deaths Covid-19 would cause have also been wildly inaccurate. When Mexico had recorded about 1,000 Covid-19 fatalities toward the end of April, the deputy minister predicted that the infectious disease would claim about 6,000 to 8,000 lives in Mexico.

Coronavirus cases and deaths reported by day
Coronavirus cases and deaths reported by day. milenio

In early June, when the death toll had just passed 12,000, he said that 30,000 to 35,000 fatalities were possible or 60,000 in a “catastrophic scenario,” a figure that was passed on August 22.

While the deputy health minister hasn’t offered any new predictions about how many people will die from Covid-19, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington is currently predicting more than 138,000 fatalities by the end of the year in the most likely scenario.

“I confess that I was optimistic,” López-Gatell told La Jornada after rejecting that it was a mistake to make the mathematical projections public.

“We said what would happen if and only if the lockdown was respected, nonessential businesses closed and state governments confirmed that was the case,” he said.

(A national social distancing initiative was in place from late March to the end of May before being replaced by state-by-state restrictions.)

“… Where the lockdown wasn’t respected, the prediction didn’t come true,” López-Gatell said.

Asked whether Mexico’s high number of deaths was related to patients arriving at hospitals only when they were gravely ill in addition to a lack of critical care specialists, López-Gatell said that the latter was the “reality we faced” and a factor in the elevated death toll, the fourth highest in the world behind the United States, Brazil and India.

“With regard to people arriving [at hospitals] in serious condition, that was at the start [of the pandemic]. We didn’t have enough beds and if we said ‘don’t wait,’ the hospitals would have been overwhelmed,” he said.

López-Gatell said that after hospital capacity was increased in April, health authorities began encouraging people to go to hospital as soon as they began feeling unwell, especially if they have, or suspect they have, diabetes or other chronic diseases.

With regard to Covid-19 vaccines, the coronavirus czar said that it is not acceptable for safety, quality and efficacy to be compromised in the haste to make them available.

Mexico, via the Carlos Slim Foundation, has struck a deal with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to produce and distribute the Oxford University vaccine here should it pass phase three trials, while Russia last week announced an agreement with a Mexican pharmaceutical company to supply 32 million doses of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.

López Obrador has pledged to make vaccines available for all Mexicans free of charge and offered to be the first person to be inoculated no matter where the vaccine comes from.

Source: La Jornada (sp) 

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