True toll of COVID-19 cases in Santiago Atitlán unknown due to lack of testing

A visitor to the idyllic streets of Santiago could easily be deceived by the almost normal appearance of town. The market is open and the streets are bustling with people. Although masks are mandatory in Guatemala, the pastor of one of Atitlán’s largest churches has preached that masks are not necessary. Despite efforts of public health officials to convince people otherwise, thousands of his followers seem to be following the advice and not using masks. Recently Guatemala changed to a nationwide 9PM curfew, but municipal enforcement has been minimal and many have begun to gather in the evening ignoring earlier curfews. 

This illusion of a return to normalcy comes at a dangerous time, with cases in Guatemala growing by more than one thousand each day. Currently there have been 85,152 positive cases and 3,105 fatalities.

Foods and other goods continue to reach Santiago, keeping the market and stores well-stocked. However, many families are starting to feel the economic consequences of the pandemic, lining the main roadway out of town and waving white flags (a symbol for hunger) to passing cars.

Thus far, Santiago has 82 official positive COVID-19 cases and seven fatalities. This number likely far underreports the true number of positive cases. Only 126 total tests have been done in the population of 55,000. Of these tests, there is a 53% positivity rate, further indicating that insufficient testing is being done. 

Many positive cases in the town are thought to be hiding in their homes, afraid of being tested and taken to the collapsed national hospitals. Legal requirements now require burials within four hours. People who sought care in the covid hospitals and died are buried in Guatemala City or Quetzaltenango, a culturally unacceptable situation.  The health department suggests that more than 30 individuals have died of covid-19 in Santiago Atitlán. Many deaths are reported, but families are in denial and blame age.

Despite limited funds and reduced staff, we have fought to keep the emergency room open 24/7 and provide outpatient clinic services in general medicine, pediatrics, orthopedics, OB/GYN and dentistry by appointment only.