Just 57% of Americans are fully vaccinated. In Puerto Rico, however, more than 73% of the population has been vaccinated. This is the highest percentage in the United States, outstripping New England States. The Island also has some the lowest rates of infection and deaths from COVID-19.
How did this happen? One reason is simply that the government of Puerto Rico has been more consistent and effective in responding to the pandemic than the governments of many States.
Government officials in Puerto Rico have mandated stricter responses to the pandemic than most States. Masks have been mandatory, many types of businesses were shut down, and a curfew was imposed. Employers were legally required to report outbreaks, which is not the case in the states. There were penalties for spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
Having just come through the most severe hurricane in U.S. history and a swarm of earthquakes, Puerto Rico may have been more mentally prepared than the States to take strong action against the pandemic.
Puerto Rico’s healthcare system is also less robust than those generally found in the States. Medicaid is funded differently, leading to underfunding of healthcare costs, there is a serious shortage of physicians, and transportation to healthcare facilities is a serious problem in rural areas.
Puerto Rico also has a higher proportion of at-risk individuals. The aging population, higher percentages of people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, and a much higher poverty rate than any State mean that the chances of severe cases were much higher in the territory than in the States.
With these obstacles to successful treatment, prevention was the only practical route for Puerto Rico.
Lack of politicization
Yale medical school professor Daniel Colón Ramos, who is advising the territory’s government on handling COVID-19, told CNN, “Mask mandates were never really politicized. The importance of vaccination was never made into a political issue. It helped to send a coherent message that was based on scientific evidence.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, agreed, saying, “Best I can tell, they’ve done this largely by not tying vaccines to politics. They pay less attention to mainland politics. All their political parties actively support vaccinations. And generally, political [identity] & vaccinations are not intermixed.”
In the States, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to wear masks in public, according to Pew Research. 76% of Democrats reported wearing masks compared with just 53% of Republicans.
Academic researchers have found the same pattern. In Puerto Rico, the Democratic/ Republican divide is not the same as in the States. Since the territory’s status question (statehood vs. independence or the unconstitutional dream of “commonwealth“) is the most important political issue, conservatives and liberals do not divide themselves along party lines, as they tend to in the States.
This difference may have helped to prevent the politicization of actions like wearing masks and accepting vaccines.