Brazil has record COVID-19 deaths as new health minister prepares for job

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil on Tuesday reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths just as the country’s new health minister nominee pledged to continue the controversial policies of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the severity of the disease.

The initial comments by cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga, a day after he was tapped by Bolsonaro, dashed hopes for significant change in course to curb a worsening pandemic that has killed over 280,000 people in Brazil, which already had the worst weekly death toll in the world last week.

On Tuesday afternoon, Brazil recorded 2,841 deaths for the first time.

Queiroga asked Brazilians to wear masks and wash their hands but stopped short of endorsing social distancing or lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus.

“These are simple measures but they are important, because people can with these measures avoid having to shut down the country’s economy,” Queiroga said in a press conference together with outgoing Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, an active duty army general.

Pazuello was under pressure as fatalities surged, even though he toed Bolsonaro’s line against lockdowns. He also backed the president’s endorsement of anti-malarial drugs to treat COVID-19, the effectiveness of which is disputed by many health care providers.

Queiroga added that the overall health policy is set by the president and the minister is there to implement it.

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The formal appointment of Queiroga, who campaigned for Bolsonaro in 2018 and served on his transition team, is expected on Wednesday. Queiroga will be Brazil’s fourth health minister since the pandemic began. There is no date yet for a handover, although he has begun transition work by meeting with Pazuello.

Queiroga, who is president of the Brazilian Cardiology Society, criticized the use of anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients in a newspaper interview on Sunday, saying there was no scientific evidence that it worked, but he added that doctors are free to prescribe the drug.

He also said that lockdowns are not the way to stop the pandemic, repeating Bolsonaro’s position in defiance of most public health experts and state governors in Brazil.

Pazuello, who has no medical degree, had been criticized for lacking public health expertise and rubberstamping Bolsonaro’s decisions. His two predecessors resigned in roughly the span of a month last year, in part because as physicians they would not fully endorse treating patients with hydroxychloroquine.

His failure to secure timely supplies of vaccines led to calls for an inquiry in Congress, while the Supreme Court is investigating his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the northern city of Manaus, where hospitals ran out of oxygen.

Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Maria Carolina Marcello, Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Aurora Ellis