The first wave: how Uruguay is handling the pandemic

From 20 cases a day in March, to 0 cases in June, for the first time after 9 months of pandemic there are 400+ new coronavirus cases per day in Uruguay. What’s the plan moving forward?
By Karen A Higgs
coronavirus cases uruguay
Last updated on December 4, 2020

From 20 coronavirus cases a day in Uruguay in March, to zero cases in June, after 9 months of pandemic for the first time there are over a hundred cases per day.  We’re calling it a second wave, though to be honest, perhaps it’s the first. 

[UPDATE December 23 2020: This is indeed our FIRST wave of infections. A local joke is that everything takes years to reach Uruguay. We spent March to November virtually without cases. Now the pandemic has finally arrived and we are registering on average 400 cases per day. This article still stands as tracking and tracing continues.]

As there is very little information out there on a regular basis in English about Uruguay, we share this update that went out in our newsletter on November 28–with a few updates.

A beacon in the region

Despite the fact that Uruguay’s big neighbours, Brazil and Argentina, are third and ninth in the list of countries with the highest number of cases in the world, here in Uruguay, the pandemic numbers have been benign.

A lot of people say ‘well, that’s because Uruguay has a population of just 3.4 million’, but have a look at the graph below. The third column shows cases per 1 million.

The graph includes our neighbours. Remember Uruguay shares an open border with Brazil. Have a look at this video to see what I mean. We are not an island like New Zealand or the United Kingdom—which I included in the graph for comparison.

So yes, Uruguay has been doing really well.

coronavirus cases uruguay

1,000+ active cases now

But now, eight months in, on November 28 we hit the psychological barrier of 1,000+ active cases in the country. Why has this happened?

To put it simply, life in Uruguay has been pretty much back to normal for months, with the addition of masks and social distancing, which are compulsory in certain places like shops and public transport.

It is inevitable that the numbers are rising as predicted in models made by the GACH, the honorary scientific committee put together at the start of the pandemic. After going from 20 new cases a day in March, down to zero cases in June, November was the first time ever we started experiencing 100+ new cases per day.

The important thing is that starting December, there are just 23 people in intensive care, and Uruguay grew its capacity to over 2,000 ICU beds at the start of the pandemic. And though painful, almost all of the total 80 deaths nationwide have been folks in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, with secondary health conditions [Editor’s note: data updated December 4th, 2020].

To further put things into perspective, a friend of mine from New Mexico (population: 2,300,000) told me in that state alone there were more than 2,000 new cases and 20 to 30 new deaths on the daily. That contrast speaks volumes on how Uruguay is handling this pandemic.

This summer, the government made the difficult decision to keep the borders closed. Of course, everyone is concerned about what will happen over the holidays with typically gregarious Uruguayans and people flocking to the beach over New Years’.

Uruguay’s covid response: tracing, testing, reliance on science

So how does Uruguay still have EU code green status? (i.e. less than 4% of positive cases, Uruguay is currently at 2%).

In a nutshell, it’s down to:

  • a good tracing system,
  • high rates of testing,
  • a response by the population, based on personal responsibility and solidarity, and
  • clear consistent measures by the government, especially the Ministry of Public Health, only taken after consultations with the GACH.
coronavirus cases uruguay

It’s typical to see this kind of notice on shop doors, this one is in the shop at the foot of my building. It says: Your right not to use a mask ends when the right of another to look after themself starts. If you look after yourself, you look after us all.

Moreover, tracing has been excellent and prioritised. Once someone tests positive, all their recent contacts are traced and informed. They have to go into quarantine and get tested. So even on those open borders with Brazil, the outbreaks are being contained. It’s quite remarkable, I think.

In addition, we are asked to reduce the number of people we interact with on a daily basis so that if we test positive, we make the tracers’ jobs as easy as possible. Currently of all new cases, only 15% of their contacts are untraceable and that number has stayed steady. The government is planning to double the number of tracers for the holiday season.

From within a few months of the start of the pandemic, Uruguay was testing in numbers that compared well to countries like South Korea. We’re currently testing between 3,000-6,000 people a day. The plan is to arrive at 15,000 before the holidays.

A member of my family was tested some days ago. He drove to a testing station at midday and received the results via text —negative, fortunately— by 7 pm

Uruguay’s scientists have really stepped up to the plate. In November, the public university Udelar and the Pasteur Institute announced an even faster test called LAMP, with results in 45 minutes. This is crucial to keeping the economy safely open with Brazil. Before LAMP, for instance, around 40 long-distance truckers per month were far into Uruguay territory carrying goods by the time their positive results came back.

And Uruguayans do like an orderly life. Theatres, music shows, restaurants, and football all opened up once sanitary measures —specifically written to suit each type of activity—were in place. They do love a good ‘protocol’, as government-issued regulations are referred to.

Responsible beach-going

Now the GACH has come up with a protocol for the beach! It includes distancing sun umbrellas 5 to 7 metres apart (about 20ft) and keeping a 10m (33ft) clear corridor between the ocean and the first line of umbrellas so there is plenty of space to stroll and stay socially distanced.

Holidaymakers are requested to use beaches responsibly and I’m hopeful Uruguayans will respond as responsibly as they did earlier in the year. The municipality of Montevideo is going one step further. They intend to bring out an app for your phone so you can check which of the city’s beaches is the least busy. If it’s crowded, you can stay home.

What can I say? #GottaLoveUruguay… And the battle’s not over yet.

Want to stay up to date with cases in Uruguay? The most reliable source is the Coronavirus UY app for your phone. Guru’Guay explains where to get it and how to use it.

The latest on the pandemic in Uruguay

Jan 10 2023 The Uruguay government declared the end of the health emergency on April 1 2022 after 752 days. 82% of the population has received at least two shots.  

This article is an adaptation from the November edition of the Guru’Guay newsletter which was published November 28 2020. To sign up for Guru’Guay’s regular updates, click here.

Photo by PedroSk – Getty Images




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related articles

Uruguay travel entry requirements

Traveling to Uruguay? Entry requirements were updated by the government in August 2022. Check out Uruguay travel restrictions at this time.

Copy link