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Chile Sees New Wave Of COVID-19 Infections Despite Rapid Vaccine Distribution

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The South American country of Chile might have some lessons for the pandemic here in the United States. Chile has one of the world's fastest vaccination rates. No other South American country approaches it. And in this hemisphere, only the U.S. comes close. But a wave of COVID-19 infections is bringing hospitals in Chile to the brink of collapse. Chile has just closed its borders and lockdown activities again. Joining us now from Santiago is Dr. Claudia Cortes. She's an infectious disease expert from the University of Chile. Thank you so much for being with us.

CLAUDIA CORTES: Hi. Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why are things getting worse in Chile?

CORTES: The very beginning, we have a risk communication from our authorities that have been very weak and very contradictory. We were raising our cases in January of this year. And even if our cases were going up, the government decides to release some restrictions and to open some activities that were closed for almost nine months, like gyms, like casinos.

We also opened the school 1 of March. That's the beginning of our academic year, from March to December. Last year, schools were closed for almost the whole year. So it was very confusing because on one side, the government put a lot of restrictions. But on the other side, they open a lot of things. And that make the people stop taking care of themselves. They stop using mask. They start doing get-togethers and a lot of reunions with many people, many of the times without mask.

So there was, like, less fear to the virus. And that was at the same time that we started this very, very good campaign of vaccination. But at the very beginning of vaccination, the government was very triumphalist about, OK, we have vaccines for everybody. Everybody's going to get the vaccine. So they sent a sort of wrong message that you can relax.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, where do you think Chile's at? I mean, you just locked everything down. What does the country look like right now? Is everyone back in their homes? Things are shut down? Are people paying attention to this second lockdown?

CORTES: Unfortunately, we are not doing a correct lockdown. There are still a lot of people outside. There is not a lot of fiscalization. There is not police or military or whatever doing the controls that people go back to their homes. And we need to do that because after one year, we learn that not many people follow the instructions. And so if you have a lockdown and you don't really do a correct lockdown, it's useless.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think needs to be done to turn things around? And do you think that will happen?

CORTES: I think we need a correct risk communication. I hope that government and the health authorities really understand that and change the way they're doing because that's - for my understanding, is one of the main problems. And we need - we must use the mask and wash your hands, avoid crowds. And that's the way until we - everybody gets the vaccine, or 80% of the people get the vaccine. Things can get better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just - I want to ask your own personal reflection after a year of fighting this disease on the front lines. I mean, how are you feeling?

CORTES: We are tired, but we are frustrated, too, because the reality that I live every single day for the last year has been terrible. I have to start calling families and explain that their relative is dying. And they can't go to the hospital. So this person is going to die alone or with me next to him, people that he doesn't know.

And the people outside that are not related to health care don't believe us. Or they think it's not that bad. So I can go outside on last - one week ago and see bars full of people. And it's, like - make me furious because we are the one who are going to need to work double or triple because all these people is not taking care of themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Claudia Cortes in Santiago, Chile. Thank you very much.

CORTES: Thank you for this opportunity. And please take care until everybody gets vaccinated. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.