Mexico downplays high rate of coronavirus infections, deaths among health workers

A urban artist makes a mural in memory of all health workers who lost their lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic on August 25, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico. Because the authorities have not provided the necessary medical supplies, doctors face a high risk of contagion by coronavirus. Photo by Leonardo Casas/Eyepix/ABACAPRESS.COM

Mexican officials on Thursday downplayed the country’s rate of coronavirus infections and deaths among medical personnel, appearing to dispute reports this week that Mexico had the highest rate in the world.

The Health Department said 1,410 doctors, nurses and other hospital employees had died from COVID-19, while a total of 104,590 medical workers had tested positive for the coronavirus.

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Infections among among health care personnel represented about 17% of Mexico’s total 616,900 coronavirus cases, though such workers account for only about 1% of the population. Deaths in the sector were only about 2% of Mexico’s total deaths, and the government said the fact that health care workers died less frequently than other severe cases showed they weren’t particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

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The argument appeared to ignore that health care workers are younger in general than other severe cases — almost half of those severely ill from COVID-19 are above retirement age — and that they presumably have better medical knowledge and access to care which tend to improve their chances of survival.

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Only people with severe symptoms are tested in Mexico — 99% of Mexicans have never had a coronavirus test, leading most observers to conclude that the country’s infections are vastly under counted.

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The government acknowledged that only about 283,000 medical workers had gotten tests so far, probably equivalent to one-third or one-fourth of the country’s health care employees, depending on how that is defined. There are about 650,000 government health care workers in Mexico and nearly that many in the private health care sector.

The Health Department said as many as 12.3% of front-line medical personnel caring for COVID-19 patients got infected, compared to a confirmed infection rate of only about 0.5% for the population as a whole.

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Officials sought to deflect criticism that medical workers have not had adequate protective gear by saying workers who took leaves from government hospitals during the pandemic were infected at only slightly lower rates than those who remained on duty. However, many of those on leave had outside jobs, probably at other health care facilities, and many took leaves because their age or underlying health conditions made them more vulnerable to developing severe COVID-19 symptoms if infected.

Health professionals have staged protests over a lack of adequate personal protective equipment, and early in the pandemic there were at least two confirmed outbreaks at hospitals that sickened dozens of health care professionals.

The government has claimed since March that hospital workers have had all the protective gear they need, but on several occasions hospital employees have blocked streets in Mexico City displaying what they said was ill-fitting, insufficient or substandard gear.

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In a report Wednesday, Amnesty International said Mexico leads the world in coronavirus deaths among its health care workers, surpassing the United States at 1,077, the United Kingdom at 649, and Brazil at 634. It said nurses accounted for 42% of those infected, doctors made up 27% and other hospital employees such as technicians, aides and maintenance and cleaning staff were 31%.

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Death statistics vary, depending on who each country classifies as a health care worker, how deaths are considered confirmed, and how they are reported.

The Pan American Health Organization, for example, reported 2,506 COVID-19 deaths among all health workers in the Americas, and gave the same numbers for Mexico as Amnesty, but listed only 240 deaths for Brazil and 660 for the United States.

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