COVID-19 update

El Salvador is in a race to vaccinate its population in time to avoid another possible wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths.   The country hit an important milestone this week as more than one million people are now fully vaccinated, mostly with two doses of the Chinese Coronavac vaccine.  This milestone was reached at the same time the country is seeing an uptick in cases of COVID-19.  The government confirmed 198 cases of the virus yesterday.  The last time the country saw that many confirmed cases was on February 13 when the country was on a downward trend from its second wave of cases which had peaked in January.  There was also a jump in the number of cases listed as moderate, critical or grave. 

One question is whether the variants of the virus detected in various countries worldwide are making their presence known in El Salvador.   With limited gene sequencing of samples, it is difficult to say.   To date, the Ministry of Health has only referred to the presence of a variant from California.  The variants  from Brazil and Great Britain have been detected in neighboring countries such as Costa Rica and Panama, and this makes it foreseeable that variants could soon be found in El Salvador if not there already.

Vaccination continues in the country at a steady pace.  As of June 16, a little more than 1 million people are fully vaccinated and another 400,000 have received a first dose.   El Salvador is thus approaching one third of the adult population vaccinated.  With vaccines so far only provided to persons 40 and older (as well as healthcare workers, teachers and first responders), the mix of newly discovered coronavirus cases in the country has a greater percentage of younger persons than previously.

On June 2, the head of the Pan-American Health Organization warned that cases were doubling in El Salvador, along with Belize and Panama.  Around El Salvador, there are local reports of outbreaks of serious cases of the illness.  According to a report in La Prensa Grafica, schools were closed in San Rafael Obrajuelo, La Paz, after 12 people have died this month from the disease.  An outbreak with deaths was also reported in Puerto El Triunfo.   An outbreak in Juayua has infected several municipal employees and the town's mayor perished after contracting COVID-19.   Talking about the increase of cases today, Minister of Health Francisco Alabi said new cases were a result of conglomerations of people, and not new outbreaks of the virus.  (Not sure what he means by that).  

Hospitalization is also rising.  On Monday, La Prensa Grafica reported that a doctor working in the Hospital El Salvador reported that the hospital's 140 ICU beds were completely filled with 60 patients intubated.  Alabi stated on June 15 that there were 424 persons hospitalized with COVID-19 in Hospital El Salvador, although he did not specify their level of care or level of ICU use.  

Meanwhile there has been additional information developed about the undercounting of COVID-19 deaths in the official Salvadoran government statistics.  The Economist magazine did an analysis of "excess deaths" worldwide -- that is the number of people who died from all causes compared to the expected number of people to die during the specified time period.  For the period May 31st-August 30th 2020, El Salvador reported 670 confirmed deaths, but the level of excess deaths linked directly or indirectly to the pandemic was 8,770 or more than ten times that amount. 

Another study was prepared by doctors within the social security system hospitals of El Salvador for the period April through August 2020.   Looking at data from only three hospitals within the social security system, the report found 1234 deaths from COVID-19.   During the same period, the official government total for the entire country was only 724.

These reports bolster prior analyses which show that the number of COVID-19 deaths reported in El Salvador, particularly during June through August 2020, was significantly undercounted.  But this is hardly a problem unique to El Salvador.   Many countries have underreported COVID-19 deaths points out The Economist.  Given the wide variety of reporting practices and problems, it becomes very difficult to compare one country to another with respect to COVID mortality. 

For the moment, we can still say that El Salvador presently appears to have a lower incidence of new COVID-19 cases than much of Latin America where the virus is hitting new peaks.   But this virus surges in waves, and El Salvador seems to be on the upward side of a new wave.  The country's economy is wide open, and with more and more "conglomerations" of people in soccer stadiums and markets, while only a third of the population is vaccinated, the challenge once again will be to "flatten the curve."