Truck drivers test positive for virus at Costa Rica border

Costa Rican officials say that in the week since they began testing truck drivers entering the country from Nicaragua and Panama, 23 who were asymptomatic have tested positive and others who showed symptoms were turned away without tests

By JAVIER CORDOBA Associated Press May 15, 2020, 12:06 AM

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- In the week since Costa Rica began testing truck drivers entering the country from Nicaragua and Panama, 23 who were asymptomatic have tested positive for the new coronavirus and others who showed symptoms were turned away without tests, officials said Thursday. The results are another sign that the spread of the virus in Nicaragua could be greater than its government has acknowledged. Nicaragua has reported only 25 confirmed cases and eight deaths.

Its government has not imposed social distancing measures and continues to promote mass gatherings. On Tuesday, a Nicaraguan truck driver was treated after fainting at the Costa Rican border and later tested positive for the coronavirus. Costa Rican authorities confirmed two other positive tests at a crossing from Nicaragua on the first day of testing last week, but did not immediately respond to a request for a breakdown of drivers' nationalities.

They conducted 230 tests that first day. Officials have not said how many drivers have been denied entry into Costa Rica for displaying possible symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The virus results in mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but it can cause more severe illness or death for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.

Marvin Altamirano, president of the Nicaraguan Truck Drivers' Association, said that so far it had confirmation of five infected drivers. "Yesterday we had 600 trucks held up and today we have 800 stopped in a line 23 kilometers (14 miles) long," Altamirano said. "The losses are £100 per day per stopped truck." He said the association had asked the Nicaraguan government to intervene and propose that truck drivers be tested once a month in Managua.

On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy warned U.S. citizens in Nicaragua via Twitter about the coronavirus. "Independent health monitors report the actual number of cases is likely much higher," the embassy said. "Independent reporting also suggests the spread of COVID may be impacting the ability of the medical system in areas outside of Managua to effectively respond."

The test results in Costa Rica also suggest that infected truck drivers could be a point of contagion for countries that have left their borders open to commerce. Costa Rica is the only country in Central America known to have mandatory on-site testing of truck drivers at its border crossings. El Salvador, which has imposed the strictest measures in the region aimed at slowing the virus' spread, only takes drivers' temperature at its borders.

Costan Rican health officials take samples from truck drivers at the border crossings and then the drivers have to wait there for the results, which have been coming in less than 24 hours. Costa Rica's health minister, Daniel Salas, explained previously that when infected drivers are confirmed positive, authorities notify the government of the country they entered from and their home government. Costa Rica has reported 830 confirmed coronavirus cases in the country and eight deaths.

International pressure is growing on the Nicaraguan government to take more measures to slow the virus' spread and provide a more transparent accounting of cases. Despite the official numbers, reports are increasing of overwhelmed hospitals and "express burials" of suspected coronavirus victims. On Wednesday, Nicaragua's government moved more than 2,800 prisoners to house arrest as reports spread of suspected COVID-19 cases in the country's prisons.

The government said it was a gesture for the upcoming Mother's Day celebration.

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Associated Press writer Gabriela Selser in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this report.

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