HAVANA – A middle-aged Cuban woman, let’s call her Belkis, arrives at a former campground converted into a quarantine area for people suspected of having COVID-19, where she was sent after a neighbor she chatted with three days earlier tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Before the end of her first day at the site, Belkis will begin a drug regimen designed to bolster her immune system.
Thursday marked Cuba’s seventh consecutive day with no COVID-19 deaths, reflecting a mortality rate from the illness of 4.2 percent, well below the median for the Americas (5.9 percent) and the world as a whole (6.6 percent).
Eighty-five percent of the 1,916 Cubans testing positive for the virus since mid-March have recovered. And the majority of the 81 people who have succumbed to COVID-19 were elderly or patients already in the terminal stage of a pre-existing ailment.
How has Cuba done it? The experience of Belkis illustrates Havana’s so-far successful strategy of doing everything possible to prevent contagion and providing timely treatment in cases of suspected infection.
Rejecting the idea of a comprehensive lockdown, the island’s Communist government has relied instead on identifying and isolating potential carriers of a virus that has claimed 335,000 lives around the world.
Broader quarantines are used, but for neighborhoods, not entire cities or towns.
Authorities have also deployed thousands of medical students to go door-to-door checking on people’s health.
As in the case of Belkis, mere exposure to someone who tested positive is enough to find oneself confined in a government quarantine center.
Untested individuals who present possible COVID-19 symptoms or are suspected of being infected are likewise sent to the government centers.
Those classified as “secondary” contacts of infected people are allowed to self-isolate at home.
“This is a particularity of Cuba and its health system, as not all countries have isolation centers and some opt to leave suspected cases and the contacts of confirmed cases in their homes,” Dr. Francisco Duran, the health ministry’s chief epidemiologist, said this week.
As the public face of Cuba’s response to coronavirus, the grey-haired physician and public health expert has become a celebrity.
Every morning, Cubans turn on their televisions to see a masked Duran deliver the daily COVID-19 bulletin and answer questions from reporters.
Nearly 900 confirmed and suspected carriers of the virus are hospitalized, according to Friday’s report from the health ministry, and 1,790 other people are under medical observation at home.
When a new patient reaches a quarantine center, the first order of business is starting him or her on the pharmaceutical protocol.
While Cuba, along with a host of other countries, is working on a vaccine for COVID-19, success on that front is likely months away, so health officials have opted to dose infected people and at-risk individuals, such as medical workers, with a score of drugs thought to strengthen the immune system and address symptoms.
Moves by the Trump administration to intensify the nearly 60-year-old US economic embargo against the island make it difficult for Cuba to import medicine, forcing the health care system to fall back on existing resources.
“We have achieved a worthy, very worthy result in the confrontation with the pandemic,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said Thursday during a meeting with scientists involved in the battle against COVID-19.
Starting with the first coronavirus cases on the island, doctors have treated both confirmed and suspected sufferers with recombinant interferon alfa-2b, produced in 1986 by Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB).
As the response progressed, health-care workers began taking alfa-2b in the form of nasal drops.
Doctors have also turned to Biomodulina-T, a CIGB creation that counteracts immunological dysfunction and has been used for more than two decades to treat recurring respiratory infections in the elderly.
For people confirmed to have coronavirus, the protocol mandates Kaletra, an antiretroviral proven successful against HIV-1, and anti-malarial drug chloroquine.
Patients in serious or critical condition are given erythropoietin, Surfacen and a new drug, CIGB-258, which was under development by the CIGB when the coronavirus reached Cuba.
Though originally intended for rheumatoid arthritis, CIGB-258 shows promise as a treatment for COVID-19 thanks to its ability to activate the body’s defenses against inflammation, according to the chief scientist on the project, Gillian Martinez.
CIGB-258 has been administered to 49 patients in serious or critical condition.
Of the critical patients who received the drug, 78 percent survived, while 92 percent of the people in serious condition recovered.
Globally, the survival rate for coronavirus patients in critical condition is around 30 percent.