Woman in Uruguay gets COVID test. (AP)

A woman in Uruguay gets swabbed. (AP)

Covid Check-in: The Pandemic Takes Its Toll in Uruguay

By Luisa Horwitz

Despite a strong vaccination campaign and early mitigation success, Uruguay is facing a fierce surge in cases.

While Latin America was deemed the COVID-19 global epicenter a year ago, Uruguay stood out as a country that was keeping contagion under control. From early contact tracing to a responsive population in face of strict health guidelines, mitigation was comparably successful. But now, Uruguay is grappling with a fierce new wave.

Initial successes

Since President Luis Lacalle Pou declared a state of emergency on March 13, 2020, the government took swift action to contain the virus’ spread. Measures involved banning large gatherings, enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing in public, expanding public transportation, and maintaining a testing rate among the highest in the region. Travel restrictions required all incoming travelers to take a PCR test within 72 hours prior to traveling, and only those who tested negative could board inbound flights. Uruguay never imposed a nationwide quarantine for residents.

Initial mitigation measures appeared successful. In June 2020, Uruguay was the only Latin American country whose nationals were allowed into the European Union. That same month, Uruguay became the first country in Latin America to reopen schools, and in October in-person learning became mandatory. Even when government workers returned to remote work in December after a slight end-of-year surge in cases, in-person learning in schools continued through the academic year.

A turning point

The small country of 3.5 million is jammed between giants Argentina and Brazil, two countries that have seen major jumps in contagion rates, largely due to the P.1 variant detected in Brazil in December 2020. In April 2021, between the variant and relaxation of mitigation measures, things in Uruguay took a turn. As of May 18, Uruguay had the highest per capita death rate in Latin America, with a seven-day rolling average of 15.22 deaths per million people, followed by Argentina at 10.94. That figure is actually down from a mid-April of 18.55 deaths per million—a rate nearly eight times what it was just one month earlier.

By the end of March, capacity at intensive care units (ICU) surpassed the 35-percent threshold for the first time to enter the “red zone,” an alert level set by the government that indicates an initial “saturation” of the healthcare system. By May 18, ICU occupancy rate for Covid patients hit 52 percent, while total occupancy was at 78 percent.

In light of the spoke in cases, authorities announced in late March that public offices would close, public workers would receive Covid bonuses similar to what they received last year for two months, and other recreational spaces like gyms and theaters would close too. “Our goal is to not saturate the health system,” Lacalle Pou said. The country also suspended in-person classes at that time, though in-person classes resumed on May 3, except in the capital Montevideo and nearby Canelones.

A vaccination campaign underway

The increase in cases comes even as Uruguay has one of the region’s most successful vaccination campaigns in the world and second only to Chile in Latin America. As of May 14, 34 percent of its population had received at least one vaccine dose, and the portion of the population fully immunized hit 27 percent. The government has prioritized health and essential workers, elderly citizens, and high-risk groups for immunization, and has also set up mobile vaccination centers to reach an additional 150,000 people at more than 300 remote locations.

Immunizations being administered are from manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech and China’s Sinovac, with an additional investment of $2.5 million in the World Health Organization’s COVAX Facility for 1.5 million available doses, which so far have been AstraZeneca-Oxford. On March 10, and only 10 days after starting to administer vaccinations, Uruguay surpassed Argentina and Mexico—who both began vaccinating citizens in late December—in terms of per capita doses administered.