SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s health ministry said on Monday that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had exceeded 20,000.
The world’s top copper producer has 20,643 confirmed cases, 980 more than the previous day, and 10 new deaths, taking the total number of fatalities to 270, said Paula Daza, the health ministry subsecretary.
Chile, one of South America’s most developed countries, has won praise for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, conducting more than 200,000 tests, shutting down schools and businesses soon after the first case was confirmed at the start of March and operating rolling quarantines.
Its straight-talking health minister Jaime Manalich, a kidney specialist who once ran one of Chile’s top hospitals, has clashed with local mayors and ministers about the timing of quarantines and closures.
He also courted controversy by pressing ahead with the introduction of some of the world’s first “release certificates” for recovered patients, despite World Health Organisation guidance that there was no evidence to suggest COVID sufferers develop lasting immunity.
On Thursday he qualified the plan, saying the certificates would not speak to immunity.
Chile’s daily numbers of confirmed cases leapt into four figures last week after officials started testing people without symptoms who had been in contact with sufferers in high-risk areas like nursing homes and prisons.
Manalich said on Thursday that the number of new cases was less important than the fact that the number of hospitalizations and deaths had plateaued.
He insisted however that did not mean that he or his colleagues would be “dropping our guard”.
“To be honest, cases of this infection are now moving to this country’s more vulnerable areas where social distancing, people staying at home, complying with quarantines, access to health, all becomes more difficult,” he said.
Public health experts have warned that with the arrival of the winter flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, which routinely puts public hospitals under pressure, some of Latin America’s highest pollution rates in cities in Chile’s south could exacerbate COVID-19 death rates.
Economists widely predict a sharp contraction of Chile´s gross domestic product in 2020 and double-digit unemployment by year´s end, and the government has announced a rescue package worth 5% of GDP.
However the mines minister for the world’s top copper producer said the country’s production of the red metal was likely to dip by just 1% by year’s end.
(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)