Mexico City Resists Lockdown With Hospital Occupancy at 75%

Every day this week Mexico City has set a record for hospital beds occupied by Covid patients, driving numbers above those last spring. The mayor is urging people to stay inside. For many being cared for at home, lines to refill oxygen tanks at local outlets stretch around the block. The death toll has risen above 19,000.

Everything about the situation screams emergency. And Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has said that’s what it is. What she hasn’t done is what many health experts consider vital: move the city’s status on the national Covid scale from orange to red and trigger a full shutdown at the height of holiday shopping.

“Her message is confusing — Is it orange? Is it red? You can go outside but it’s better to stay home — this is leading people to make bad decisions,” said former health minister Salomon Chertorivski in a radio interview this week.

Jokes are making the rounds about how dark a shade of orange you can have as long as it’s not red. Orange, many here now say, is not the new black. It’s the new red.

The mayor is in a delicate spot. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, has always viewed the virus with the suspicion of a populist and has pressed hard to keep the economy open for business.

“There’s fear of contradicting the federal government and the president, which makes it hard to enforce the required measures,” Chertorivski, who is from an opposition party, said. “The city is being submissive.”

Eurasia Group analyst Carlos Petersen agreed that the mayor doesn’t find it easy to act on her own. “There seems to be an inclination from the city government to implement more restrictions but there’s an aversion at the federal level to shut down the economy,” he said in an interview.

Sheinbaum may also have presidential aspirations, Petersen said, adding to pressures to stay within party lines. “She knows the main elector for the 2024 election is AMLO,” he said.

Only two states in Mexico — Baja California and Zacatecas — are currently in red, with most of the rest in orange. Overall cases stand at nearly 1.3 million and deaths close to 116,000. Mexico is among the world’s worst-hit countries by the pandemic.

The epicenter remains the capital, where 20% of all Mexican cases are concentrated.

“We’re doing all we can to avoid returning to the painful situation of shutting down,” Sheinbaum said at a press conference Tuesday. Asked whether she was acting on Lopez Obrador’s orders, she said, “The city makes its own decisions. This time of the year is very important in economic terms for the wellbeing of many families.”

The criteria for moving from orange to red include percentage of hospital beds occupied, and Mexico City just added 260 beds, giving it more time. It is also now carrying out 20,000 rapid tests daily to find cases more quickly and stop them from spreading, Sheinbaum said. On Tuesday, 4,834 hospital beds were in use. A May 22 record of 4,553 hospitalizations was broken Dec. 12 and has continued to increase.

Overall hospital capacity is at around 75%, Sheinbaum said, calling on people to stay home to help reduce infections.

Billionaire Carlos Slim, Walmart de Mexico SAB and other companies announced on Wednesday a joint donation of 495 million pesos ($25 million) to add beds at the Citibanamex Center that’s been reconfigured for Covid patients.

“It’s one thing to have beds, but it’s another thing to have the personnel and the equipment to take care of those extra beds,” said Alejandro Macias, Mexico’s czar during the H1N1 epidemic in 2009. “Health workers are tired.”

But city center streets have been packed with pedestrians, most in masks but not all. Signs inside stores read, “Hurry, we close at 5pm today.” Adding to the infections are underground parties and holiday dinners, one of which was hosted by billionaire Ricardo Salinas.

“Life is only lived once and it’s a risk living it, a risk that’s worth it,” he tweeted alongside a picture of at least 40 guests in a holiday dinner with executives from one of his companies.

In the meantime, Guillermina Diaz waited an hour to refill an oxygen tank for her 67-year-old father who’s recovering from the coronavirus at home, after spending 24 days in the hospital. Finding him a hospital bed was a feat on its own, she said, and now family members take turns finding places to fill the tanks.

“At least I found some,” she said. “The worst part is calling place after place and hearing there’s none left.”

— With assistance by Nacha Cattan, and Dale Quinn

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