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Desperation grows as Mexico runs out of vaccines

February 5, 2021 GMT
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A life-size cutout of Deputy Health Secretary Hugo Lopez-Gatell is displayed on the patio of an outdoor restaurant in Mexico City, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. The city government has eased restrictions amid the COVID-19 "red alert” shutdown, allowing eateries to serve diners in socially distanced, preferably outdoor spaces. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
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A life-size cutout of Deputy Health Secretary Hugo Lopez-Gatell is displayed on the patio of an outdoor restaurant in Mexico City, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. The city government has eased restrictions amid the COVID-19 "red alert” shutdown, allowing eateries to serve diners in socially distanced, preferably outdoor spaces. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Desperation mounted in Mexico Thursday as the country runs out of coronavirus vaccines, a government registration website crashed for a third straight day and restaurant workers protested virus restrictions they say are driving them into poverty.

Hundreds of cooks, waiters and other restaurant employees gathered at Mexico City’s Revolution Monument in their uniforms Thursday, banging cooking pots and chanting “Either we open, or we die!”

Mexico City allows only take-out service, with open air-dining allowed at some restaurants that have outside space. But employees say that business isn’t enough to keep them going.

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Hospitals in Mexico City are over 80% full, and many people are dying because ambulance drivers say it takes them hours to find an available bed. Many families are treating sick relatives at home.

The Mexican Social Security Institute said Thursday it is investigating a disturbing video purportedly showing a man dying outside the closed glass doors of a public hospital this week as relatives fruitlessly beg staff to help him.

It said three employees are under investigation for the apparent refusal to provide care. The man did not appear to have COVID-19, but the overload of coronavirus cases has affected care for people suffering from other illnesses.

The country posted a near-record daily COVID-19 death toll of 1,682 Thursday, bringing the total to 162,922. Authorities also announced that about five cases of the U.K. variant had been found in Mexico, some apparently through local transmission.

The one bit of good news was that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador posted a video Thursday saying he had tested negative on an antigen test, after testing positive for COVID-19 about 12 days ago.

“I am well now,” López Obrador said, walking down a flight of stairs in the National Palace to prove his point. He did not say when he would end his isolation and return to public appearances.

Mexico is scrambling to line up shipments of the Pfizer and Russian Sputnik vaccines, but no new doses are expected to arrive until mid-month.

For the third straight day, millions of Mexicans who tried to register for vaccines when they do arrive were met with a non-functional website. Authorities have said the number of people seeking to register overloaded the government web page and its servers.

The official advice since the site was launched Tuesday has been to keep trying.

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But even to find out the site wasn’t working, Mexicans still had to pass a Captcha “I am not a robot” test in English, asking them to pick out photos of objects like curbside fire hydrants that don’t exist in Mexico, or objects like chimneys that look very different in Mexico.

While the site at least now loads — on Wednesday it simply returned a server error message — the holdup now appears in the link to another government agency that has to check official ID numbers. That agency spends hours “checking” registration requests, only to return a message of “no response.”

“They had months to prepare for the demand that would happen, but as always, they didn’t do it,” columnist Hectór de Mauleón wrote in the newspaper El Universal, describing his 20-hour ordeal of trying to get the page to work.

Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, who is filling in for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador while he recovers from COVID-19, acknowledged Thursday that “the service has experienced an overload, due of course to the great hopes of getting registered for a vaccine.”

“This overload of course will not affect the vaccination, but its is important that we continue with the registration,” she said.

Late Thursday, the site began to work haltingly. Authorities said so far about a half-million people were able to register.

But observers noted wryly that López Obrador’s administration recently toyed with the idea of setting up alternative social media after Twitter suspended the account of former U.S. president Donald Trump, with whom the Mexican leader was close. They say Twitter appears safe, however: the Mexican government can barely set up a working webpage.

Authorities have said they are still working on getting enough server capacity to handle the number of people attempting to register.

Mexico has received only about 760,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and has only about 89,000 of those left, many of which are earmarked for second shots.

It expects to get more Pfizer doses by mid-month, and as many as 400,000 Sputnik shots by the end of February, but they won’t be enough to vaccinate even the country’s 750,000 frontline health workers and represent a drop in the bucket for Mexico’s population of 126 million.