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Puerto Rico is the most vaccinated place in the U.S.


Last summer, coronavirus infections in Puerto Rico were trending up in a way that did not look good. It was a real cause for concern on an island where, four years after Hurricane Maria destroyed the power grid, electricity is still unreliable, which complicates just about every aspect of a pandemic response. But Puerto Rico has turned things around. Now 73% of the population is fully vaccinated, the highest rate in the U.S., where the average is still 57%. So what happened? Monica Feliu-Mojer, the director of communications and science outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico, has more.

Welcome to the program.

MONICA IVELISSE FELIU-MOJER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: Now, to be clear, more than 3,000 people have died in Puerto Rico due to COVID-19. And in responding to the crisis, there have been lockdowns - right? - curfews, mask mandates. The government requires proof of vaccination for even guests in hotel rooms and short-term rentals. How have people in Puerto Rico responded to those types of measures?

FELIU-MOJER: I think people responded pretty well. There was so much concern with, when the pandemic started, that we have such a fragile health care system. There's a lot of concern that the pandemic could cause it to collapse. So I think everyone pretty much rallied to do what needed to be done so that we could keep that health care system from collapsing and, you know, from having the worst happen in Puerto Rico.

CORNISH: You talked about the health care system. Are there other hurdles unique to Puerto Rico that had to be overcome?

FELIU-MOJER: I mean, I think the power outages and the reliability of the electricity system was a big concern, especially at the beginning, with some of the vaccine that required special refrigeration or freezing, even. So that was a big concern. And power is still very unreliable in Puerto Rico. There was concern about getting vaccines to remote areas. There are a lot of rural communities in Puerto Rico. And generally, I would say equity - so there's still some concerns in terms of equity that I think still need to be addressed to get those vaccination levels even higher and protect more of the population.

CORNISH: Are vaccines and preventative measures politicized the way we're seeing in the continental U.S.?

FELIU-MOJER: Fortunately, no. We don't see that correlation between political ideologies and people's willingness to get vaccinated or use masks. Puerto Rico has had a - historically, we've had really good acceptance of vaccines. And while there are people that are hesitant, the majority of the population, I think, understands that vaccination is a really important factor or tool for for Puerto Rico to control COVID-19.

CORNISH: What do you think that the rest of the U.S. can learn from the experience of Puerto Rico increasing its vaccination rates?

FELIU-MOJER: You know, it's not like the issue of COVID and vaccination hasn't been politicized. It's just been politicized in a different way, not in terms of identities or ideologies, political ideologies. So I think, you know, there is a lot of work to do in the U.S. to understand how people's values, their beliefs, their identities influence vaccination or health decision and figuring out, you know, how do we engage those people instead of contributing to the polarization? And then I think broad coalitions - you know, I was talking about solidarity. And those broad coalitions, different groups of people and segments of society in Puerto Rico came together to work towards preventing COVID-19, vaccinating people against COVID-19. And I think those broad coalitions are going to be really important to get vaccination levels higher in the United States.

CORNISH: Monica Feliu-Mojer is the director of communications and science outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico.

Thank you for your time.

FELIU-MOJER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INNER BANKS' "ELECTRIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.