Costa Rica pushes back coronavirus, reducing current cases

SAN JOSE (Reuters) - While parts of Latin America enter the toughest phase of the coronavirus pandemic, Costa Rica has for the past week reported a steady fall in the number of people currently infected, in a sign the country’s approach to the crisis may be paying off.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

The first country in Central America to register a coronavirus infection on March 6, Costa Rica has gone three days without reporting a related fatality. Thursday was the seventh day in succession in which the number of active cases fell.

The country has likely benefited from the population’s observance of government measures to fight the virus, health experts said.

“(The people) have understood the historic moment that we’re in,” Health Minister Daniel Salas said this week. “We’ve had a slight reduction (in active cases) but we’ll have to proceed very carefully because most people haven’t been infected.”

Over the past week, 45 new cases were reported, while 122 people recovered, reducing the number of active cases to 485 from 564, the health ministry said.

Costa Rica has not resorted to the outright curfews adopted by some countries in Central America, but it has closed the country to foreigners through May 15, stepped up border surveillance, suspended mass events, and limited road traffic.

It was too early to say for sure, but Costa Rica also appeared to have had some success in tracking lines of transmission, said Maria Luisa Avila, a former health minister.

The country is one of the most affluent and stable in the region and has a free public health system.

According to a report by Google based on mobile phone statistics, visits to shops and recreational premises have dropped 84% and to parks and beaches by 82% - figures similar to Peru, which has imposed a strict nighttime curfew but is suffering a rapidly increasing number of cases.

As of Thursday, Costa Rica, a country of some 5 million people, had reported 687 coronavirus cases in total and six deaths, 49 days after authorities registered the first patient, a U.S. tourist.

By contrast, neighboring Panama to the south, an important transport hub with a slightly smaller population, has registered 4,992 cases and 144 deaths.

Costa Rica’s reported fatality rate of 0.12 per 100,000 population is one of the lowest in the Americas, just slightly higher than Guatemala and El Salvador, which quickly imposed tough lockdowns.

Mexico this week entered the highest phase of alert in the coronavirus crisis, as daily death tolls hit new highs and confirmed cases topped 10,000.

Additional reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City and Ismael Lopez in Nicaragua, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien