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New Respiratory Illness Data Suggest Cuba Has More COVID-19 Cases Than Reported

A Cuban man wears a protective mask in Havana.
Ramon Espinosa
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Cuba has officially registered fewer than 1700 COVID-19 cases. But new data released by one of the island’s most respected institutes suggests the number may be much higher.

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In mid-March, Cuba had reported only four cases of the new coronavirus. That looks doubtful now due to another recently revealed statistic from mid-March: A spike in the number of cases of acute respiratory illness.

According to Cuba’s Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine —  as reported Tuesday by the Miami Herald — in the third week of March, Cuba saw 50,000 more of those cases than in the same week a year before. There were almost 75,000 more in the first week of April than in the prior year. Scientists say much of that excess was likely not respiratory illness but COVID-19.

“The bottom line is the virus that causes COVID-19 is extremely contagious and it’s going around the world at that time," says Dr. Aileen Marty, a professor of infectious disease at Florida International University's Wertheim College of Medicine. "It got to Cuba; there’s plenty of tourists that come to Cuba from Europe, particularly from Spain. It is very unlikely to be anything else.”

Marty says the data disparity reflects the same COVID-19 testing challenges all small developing nations had when the pandemic broke. But she also points out Cuba likely did have the testing capacity because it has an advanced biomedical industry.

“There’s no doubt that Cuba could have been out in front and presented the appropriate data sooner," says Marty. "And I think there is a mix of reasons why they didn’t.”

Cuba’s critics say the communist regime didn’t want to scare away tourism – its economic lifeline.

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Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.