By MARK STEVENSON
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Tuesday he was hoarse and had a sore throat after testing positive for COVID-19 for the second time.
López Obrador suggested he had the omicron variant, saying “this new variant of COVID isn’t very damaging.” He is isolating himself and spoke in a video message to the country’s diplomats. “It’s like a cold,” he said.
The president’s reinfection mirrored a spike in coronavirus cases in Mexico that appears to be due to the spread of the omicron variant. While there has been little increase in new hospitalizations or deaths so far, many Mexicans expressed a sense of dread and discomfort.
There has been a widespread shortage of coronavirus tests in a country that already does very little testing, and on Tuesday, some private pharmacies — once the last hope of a test for those who could pay $15 to $25 for antigen tests — announced they had run out of kits.
“The worst is yet to come,” said Oscar Galindo, 35, a financial services worker in downtown Mexico City. “There are people who don’t take precautions, who are not vaccinated, and they are creating the new variants in their bodies.”
Vaccine uptake has been relatively high in Mexico, where most consider themselves fortunate to get a shot after seeing hospitals overwhelmed last January, when people waited in lines to get oxygen cylinders refilled to treat relatives at home.
Even Javier Nolasco, a 21-year-old law student who has been fully vaccinated and wears a face mask, felt the pall of what appears to be Mexico’s fourth wave of coronavirus.
“We all have to keep taking all of the precautions,” Nolasco said. “This has been bad for the economy, and for social life.”
But López Obrador predicted that “this virus is on its way out” and that “things will get back to normal very soon.”
The president appeared on a video feed at the morning press briefing he normally runs at the National Palace in Mexico City. At least two members of his cabinet also tested positive in recent days, and López Obrador said he would wear a mask — something he has been loath to do.
The president said in that video that “fortunately, this variant does not have the degree of danger that delta did, and I am experiencing that.”
López Obrador said he had no fever, and his oxygenation was good. The president is fully vaccinated, and has had a booster shot.
Health Secretary Jorge Alcocer said López Obrador could return to the briefings as early as next week.
Galindo said Mexico had let down its guard a bit during the holidays. In Mexico City, most people in downtown areas still rigorously wear face masks, but big family get togethers are a holiday tradition.
“It got a little out of control,” Galindo noted. “When the December holidays come around, everybody has to have a party, and we all have parties.”
In 2021, López Obrador returned to his daily news briefings in February after a two-week absence when he caught coronavirus in January.
At the time, López Obrador revealed he received experimental treatments, which he described only as an “antiviral” medication and an anti-inflammatory drug.
This time around, the president said he was taking only paracetamol, a mild pain medication.
On Monday, the president told Mexicans to just assume they had COVID-19 if they had symptoms. The number of confirmed cases spiked by 186% last week.
López Obrador claimed the omicron variant is “a little COVID,” noting hospitalizations and deaths had not increased at the same rate as new cases. However, experts say those are both lagging indicators that may not show up for weeks after infections spike. In the U.S., where the omicron wave hit before it did in Mexico, COVID-19 deaths have again started to rise.
Reading advice posted on Twitter, the president said Mexicans with symptoms should just stay at home, take paracetamol and isolate rather than going out and trying to find tests.
Since Christmas, private pharmacies and the few available testing centers have been overwhelmed by long lines. The Twitter advice drew on guidelines from Mexico City and other health authorities.
López Obrador’s administration has long refused to implement mass testing, calling it a waste of money. He called on companies not to require COVID tests for employees.
Mexico has also been one of the few countries not to impose lockdowns, flight bans or mandatory face mask requirements.
Mexico passed 300,000 test-confirmed coronavirus deaths last week, but so little testing is done in the country of 126 million that a government review of death certificates puts the real toll at almost 460,000.
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