By Fabian Werner
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Uruguay, a relative coronavirus-free zone in hard-hit Latin America, is starting to see a worrying rise in cases, sparking concern among government officials that the country could reverse course after a long period of containing the pandemic.
The South American nation of 3.5 million people has confirmed just 4,208 positive cases and 68 deaths since the pandemic began, with voluntary quarantines, widespread tracing programs and random testing helping keep infection rates far lower than its South American neighbors.
However, cases have jumped in the last month, crossing 100 daily cases for the first time https://cutt.ly/qhqaaev on Tuesday, putting at risk the country's reputation as the "New Zealand" of the region. That's still magnitudes lower than neighbors like Argentina or Brazil.
Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou has now opted for a government campaign to promote "responsible freedom," with officials targeting young people ahead of the tourist season, calling on them to limit social gatherings and not share drinks.
"The health authorities make a special request to the population to reduce the circles of social contact and meeting times, the permanent use of face masks, physical distancing, ventilation and hygiene," Uruguay's national emergency system said in a statement.
Officials in the capital, Montevideo, where there are currently 449 active cases, are considering suspending celebrations for carnival, the country's major festival set to begin in January.
Health Ministry officials have asked laboratories to increase their analysis capacity for coronavirus testing, potentially doubling the current rate of about 4,000 test per day if cases continue to rise.
(Reporting by Fabian Werner; Writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alistair Bell)