Guatemala: US deportations driving up COVID-19 cases

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FILE - In this March 12, 2020 file photo, an immigration worker in an orange jacket and wearing a mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, carries a young Guatemalan migrant who was deported from the U.S., followed by another deportee, at La Aurora International airport in Guatemala City. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File)

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala's health minister said Tuesday that deportees from the United States were driving up the country's COVID-19 caseload, adding that on one flight some 75% of the deportees tested positive for the virus.

Health Minister Hugo Monroy's comments were dramatically out of line with what the government had previously said about infected deportees. Later, presidential spokesman Carlos Sandoval told reporters that Monroy was referring to a March flight on which “between 50% and 75% (of the passengers) during all their time in isolation and quarantine have come back positive.”

Before Tuesday, Guatemala had only reported three positive infections among deportees flown back by the United States.

Joaquín Samayoa, spokesman for the foreign affairs ministry, confirmed a fourth positive case for a migrant who arrived on a flight Monday. At least three of the migrants who arrived Monday were taken directly to a hospital for COVID-19 testing.

President Alejandro Giammattei addressed the nation later, but made no mention of the deportees. It remained unclear why before Tuesday the government had only reported three deportees who tested positive and how many more would have been among the high percentage who tested positive aboard that March flight. Giammattei said Tuesday there were a total of 175 people who had tested positive in Guatemala and five who had died.

“There are really flights where the deportees arrive ... citizens who come with fever, and they get on the planes that way,” Monroy said. “We automatically evaluate them here and test them and many of them have come back positive.”

He added that the United States had practically become the Wuhan of the region, referring to the Chinese province where the pandemic began.

Guatemala again began receiving deportation flights from the United States Monday after a one-week pause prompted by three deportees testing positive for COVID-19.