SAN JOSE DE LAS LAJAS, Cuba – Thousands of Cuban medical students spend their days going door-to-door in search of people suffering from possible symptoms of COVID-19 as part of a strategy – “active fishing” – that health officials hope will prevent the deadly coronavirus from taking hold on the island.
“Good morning, Mirta. Is everyone in the house well? Any respiratory symptoms?”
“Thank God, all of us remain well, Eric.”
This exchange takes place in Zaragoza, a town of 1,400 people southeast of Havana where the local dairy still uses a horse-drawn cart to make deliveries.
Eric, now in his final year of med school in the capital, is a Zaragoza native who has returned home temporarily to monitor the health of people such as Mirta, a 65-year-old retiree who lives with her extended family in a modest cement home.
“Having been born here helps a lot. People are much more cooperative, they have more confidence,” the future physician tells Efe.
Eric is one of five med students who make the rounds of every residence in town every day to ask people if they are experiencing fever or cough or have had contact with someone who may be infected, and to remind them to use personal protective equipment and practice social distancing.
So far, Zaragoza’s only cases of COVID-19 have involved strangers from elsewhere.
“We had some traveling patients who were transferred and treated, but no other cases,” Eric recounts. “Everybody is cooperative, something that’s very important at a moment like this when the principal vaccine we have is prevention.”
Cuban health authorities define active fishing as the “periodic and systematic clinical exploration of the population” to detect illness at an early stage.
Though the strategy has been in use for years among certain at-risk groups, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the government to widen the net to all of Cuba’s roughly 11 million inhabitants.
Every Cuban, from the large cities of Havana and Santiago de Cuba to hamlets high in the Sierra Maestra mountains, can count on a daily visit from a “fisherperson.”
If the resident reports experiencing symptoms or having contact with someone suspected of having the infection, he or she is placed under home quarantine. In the most serious cases, the subject will be brought to a hospital for testing.
Cuba has also developed a cell-phone app that allows users to screen themselves for COVID-19 risk. Of the more than 11,000 people who used the app as of last week, 1,801 reported symptoms.
Whether it’s because of active fishing, the Communist government’s rigorous social control, the shutdown of public transit, the obligatory wearing of masks, demography or the subtropical climate, Cuba has managed to keep a lid on the coronavirus outbreak.
The island’s first case was detected on March 12 and soon, the number of new infections was growing by double digits every day, leading many Cubans to worry about the kind of exponential growth seen in Europe and the United States.
Instead, even with increased testing – roughly 1,000 per day – the figures have held steady at around 50 new cases a day. And only 20 fresh infections were registered on Monday, bringing the total to 1,437.
Most of Cuba’s 58 coronavirus fatalities have been elderly people with existing chronic health problems.
Officials originally forecast that the virus would peak in Cuba by the start of June, but they now suggest it could come as early as the first week of May.
Even so, people remain cautious.
Mirta says she always wears a mask on the rare occasions she leaves the house and that she makes sure the most vulnerable members of the family stay in.
“The children never go outside and the oldest person in this house, who is 75, doesn’t either,” she tells Efe emphatically.