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Puerto Rico discovers protective supply cache amid COVID-19

Jose Cepeda takes orders from customers at at Alto del Cabro restaurant amid a government ordered quarantine aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus that is shuttering all non-essential businesses for two weeks in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The suspected mismanagement of essential supplies during Hurricane Maria turned out to be a boon for Puerto Rico as it fights a rise in coronavirus cases.

Health Secretary Lorenzo González said Saturday that officials discovered a cache of urgently needed personal protective equipment at a hospital in the nearby island of Vieques that remains closed since the Category 4 storm hit the U.S. territory in September 2017.

He said the equipment includes face masks, gloves, gowns and face shields that were in good condition and would be distributed to health institutions.

“They’re very useful at this moment,” said González, who became the island’s newest health secretary this week, the third in the span of two weeks.

He also said officials recently located a warehouse with medicine and medical equipment worth $4 million donated during Hurricane Maria, and that nearly all of it had expired. He did not provide details about what specific items were found.

Puerto Rico has reported 18 deaths related to COVID-19, including that of a nurse, and more than 450 confirmed cases, including several police officers who join health workers in demanding more personal protective equipment.

“Police are going the extra mile right now, and the government is not protecting us like it should,” said Gregorio Matías, vice president of a police union.

The discovery in Vieques outraged many on an island still struggling to recover from Maria and from a series of strong earthquakes that hit Puerto Rico’s southern region in recent months.

González said he has ordered an investigation into why those supplies were abandoned in Vieques. The announcement comes two months after a group of Puerto Ricans discovered and broke into a warehouse filled with emergency supplies in southern Puerto Rico at a time local officials sought urgent help for those affected by a string of earthquakes. Other similar discoveries have been made since Maria hit.

González said the government still needs other equipment including testing kits and ventilators, noting that there are only 500 available for an island of 3.2 million people with high rates of asthma.

“If that’s going to be the difference between life and death, people are going to die,” he said. “Don’t take this lightly.”

A doctor who leads a COVID-19 government task force has said the U.S. territory needs at least 3,000 ventilators with the anticipated peak in cases expected in early May. Puerto Rico is in the middle of a month long curfew that is one of the strictest in any U.S. jurisdiction and has shuttered non-essential businesses and banned people from going outside unless they have to buy food, medicine or go to the bank.