Puerto Rico has succeeded where Florida has failed. The U.S. Territory has fully vaccinated more than 72 percent of its residents against COVID, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the highest percentage in the United States.
Florida, meanwhile, has fully vaccinated 58.9%.
Puerto Rico is reporting around 18 cases per 100,000 population over a seven-day period, a “moderate” level. Compare that to Florida’s “significant” community transmission rate of 79.5 cases per 100,000 population over the same period.
How did Puerto Rico do it, while recovering from Hurricane Maria, with more poverty and fewer resources than places like Florida? Two main things, according to a story from the Miami Herald. Puerto Rico has had a history of aggressive vaccination campaigns. And the people there have pretty much succeeded in keeping politics out of that.
Wearing masks and vaccinations were not politicized as they were in Florida and Texas. The mayors got on board. Hospitals vaccinated staff first, followed by teachers. Universities have become vaccination centers.
And – surprise, surprise – it worked.
Puerto Rico had access to vaccines widely available in the United States – a luxury compared to the slow and often chaotic roll-out of vaccines in the rest of Latin America. Yet in South America, some countries are exceeding the vaccine response of the United States.
In Chile and Uruguay, more than 70% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times. In Argentina, where vaccines have been difficult to find, more than 61% of the population has received at least one injection. (In the USA, about 66% of the population received at least one injection.) Yes, they are small nations, but let’s look at Brazil, which has the second highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world after the United States
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has done everything to undermine vaccinations and public health confidence. He rejected offers from manufacturers to buy millions of vaccines last year and spread vaccine misinformation while promoting the use of ineffective hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. A recent report from the Brazilian Senate says it should be accused of genocide for its management of the pandemic.
Yet Brazilians have a 71% first dose rate – better than the United States. The United States has a higher rate of full vaccination, but that’s likely because Brazilians have to wait up to three months to receive a second injection of a two-dose regimen. This is intended to allow as many people as possible to start receiving pictures of the still limited supply.
In Brazil’s largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and SÃ£o Paulo, 99% of eligible adults received their first jab, Bloomberg reported.
As in the United States, misinformation is spreading on social media, but this comes up against decades of internationally recognized vaccination campaigns for other diseases. Brazil even has a beloved vaccination mascot called “Ze Gotinha” (roughly translated as “Joe Droplet”), created in the 1980s to put children at ease when they receive the polio vaccine.
In June, South America accounted for 44% of COVID deaths globally, but that number plunged to 9% in late September, Bloomberg reported. By no means does this mean that the pandemic is under control, especially when millions of people still do not have access to vaccines in places like Venezuela.
This brings us back to the United States and Florida, where we suffer from a wealth embarrassment. Anyone can get vaccinated at any time, few questions asked. So why are places with higher poverty rates and lower access to health care beating us?
In a country built on a tradition of defying authority, Americans’ healthy skepticism of government has been put on steroids and co-opted by conspiracy theories and far-right media figures. Even before COVID, anti-vaxx was already an American phenomenon. Not so long ago, many well-meaning parents refused to give their children the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccines for fear they would cause autism.
America has arguably the best medicine in the world, but has failed in this case to effectively advocate for public health measures. In Puerto Rico, there were vaccination campaigns targeting specific types of businesses, such as manufacturing and agriculture. Vaccines were required for government workers and those in restaurants, bars and cinemas. Non-profit organizations such as VOICE, a vaccine coalition, also played a role in coordinating immunization events, raising awareness against vaccine misinformation, and training health workers on coronavirus immunization.
We believed that the U.S. government’s unprecedented pace of vaccine procurement and distribution to states would overcome its logistical challenges. Other countries looked at us longingly, but now they are bewildered. What Americans and Floridians are doing is throwing food away while our neighbors starve.
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This story was originally published October 21, 2021 2:00 p.m.