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Costa Rican Health Minister concerned about COVID-19 hospital capacity

Costa Rica’s Health Minister, Daniel Salas, warned Tuesday that the country could approach a saturation of its health system due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases.

He issued the warning as the country of 5 million inhabitants reached a record number of 500 hospitalizations due to the coronavirus, of which 236 people are in intensive care units (ICU).

Costa Rica can allocate up to 359 ICU beds for coronavirus patients. An additional 986 can accommodate less-serious cases, though using them affects other health services.

“The collapse seems to be close to happening. We have 65% of the [coronavirus] ICU beds occupied,” Salas warned at the daily press conference.

“We are in a very delicate situation as a country,” added Salas, whose father recently contracted the disease.

Costa Rica was considered an exemplary country in controlling the pandemic over the first months of the pandemic, but infections have grown rapidly since economic opening began in June.

As of Tuesday, the country has reported 49,897 cumulative cases and 531 deaths associated with COVID-19.

“That figure is what can be identified, but there are many more cases that exist,” acknowledged Salas.

Despite the figures, Costa Rica on Wednesday began its “Controlled Open” phase, allowing for expanded economic activity. The country has also reopened to tourists from authorized countries and U.S. states.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on businesses; unemployment reached a record high of 24% in the April-June quarter.

The greatest sources of contagion are in the San José metropolitan area and neighboring cities, the most densely populated area in the country.

“There is a weariness of the population (with ongoing measures) — we understand that feeling — but we cannot enter into a denial of the pandemic and think that the virus is no longer there. The virus is taking a very negative route,” Salas said.

Eighth leading cause of death

COVID-19 is Costa Rica’s eighth-leading cause of death when compared to 2016-18 data, Salas said Tuesday.

“Just last Thursday, it was the tenth-leading cause of death, and today it is the eighth compared to that historical,” he said.

Salas didn’t provide supporting data, but Costa Rica’s 10.39 COVID-19-related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants would place the disease near circulatory illnesses (11.73 deaths per 100,000 in 2017) and tumors (10.2 deaths per 100,000), according to a 2019 Health Ministry analysis (PDF link).

The 531 COVID-19-related deaths comprise 329 men and 202 women, with an age range of 19 to 100 years. The majority of the deaths have occurred in elderly adults; nearly 11% of the 3,194 elderly adults who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 have died (346 people).

“We have to continue assuming a responsible attitude at all times,” Salas said.

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