Mexico Plans To Reopen Even As Officials Say COVID-19 Cases Are Near Peak
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Mexico is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases. Officials say the numbers are reaching a peak. Even so, the government there has unveiled plans to lift lockdown measures and reopen businesses. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been reporting in Mexico City, one of the country's COVID-19 hot spots. And she joins me now. Good morning, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Do we know exactly how many cases there are in Mexico?
KAHN: Well, officially, we've been told that we've now passed 4,000 deaths and 40,000 cases. But I have to start off by saying there's not a lot of testing done here. Mexico has one of the lowest testing rates in the world. And even the coronavirus czar, the deputy health minister, says the figures could be eight times higher. But it does seem like hospitals are holding for now. Officially, nationwide, they say there's about 60% of beds open. But in places, like here in Mexico City that's really hard hit, in certain parts of the city, those numbers dropped to lower than 30%. One overflow area of a hospital in a particularly hard-hit region just opened in a racetrack. And the first five patients were put there yesterday.
I did go to the general hospital here and talked with family members. I did talk to a doctor outside who was taking a smoke break. He told me he was specifically warned not to talk to the press. But he said the situation was critical in the hospital. And they were quickly reaching capacity. And yesterday, there was another protest by hospital personnel blocking a major thoroughfare here. They're demanding more protective gear. You hear a lot about medical personnel having to buy their own equipment or asking for donations. And officials tell us that we're just at the peak now of the outbreak. And it's expected to last a couple more weeks. And this week, we've seen about 300 deaths on average a day, most here in the capital.
MARTIN: So health officials are worried about this undercounting of actual cases. What does your reporting show? I mean, what about funeral homes? What are they reporting?
KAHN: Well, death figures here are being widely disputed. There's a lot of deaths that have been labeled suspicious COVID deaths or atypical pneumonia. And there's a long, long lag time before those deaths are added to the official numbers, so we won't know for months to get a more accurate account. I did speak with funeral directors. And I visited a crematory here in the capital. And they say they're running at capacity. Cemeteries are overwhelmed. Many funeral directors that don't have their own crematory on site say they wait now up to four days to get into the city's public ones. Bodies are stacked up at hospitals. And the government has ordered more refrigerated storage trucks.
I just want to play for you this man that I met. His name is Rene Bautista Portillo (ph). He runs a small crematory here. And he was describing his dealings with grieving families. And he was just overcome this week with the work, the demand of the work and the grief from the families.
RENE BAUTISTA PORTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He was telling me about helping one family and just how their pain and their crying was just heartbreaking. They hadn't seen the father of the family the whole time he was in the hospital. And now he could only give them five minutes through a glass viewing window to say goodbye because that's what the health officials say he can do. Said he's been doing this for 22 years and he hasn't felt this impotent to help grieving families. There are 41 crematories in the city, and they are running at full capacity.
MARTIN: Wow. And yet, despite all this, the Mexican government is planning to start lifting restrictions, right? What's going to open up?
KAHN: Yeah, the president's under extreme pressure here to open up the economy. Unemployment numbers for April were high. But a lot of people work in the informal sector, and job loss there has been huge. There's not a lot of economic stimulus. So he's been under a lot of pressure at home to loosen restrictions. And on top of that, U.S. officials, politicians and businesses have been pressuring Mexico to open up. U.S. factories can't reopen without goods from their Mexican suppliers. So the president says those industries will now be reclassified as essential and will begin opening up next Monday.
MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City, thank you.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.