Under-fire Nicaragua reports significant rise in COVID-19 cases

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Workers dig graves at the Caminos del Cielo cemetery in Managua on May 23, 2020

Nicaragua, criticized by its Central American neighbors for doing little to halt the spread of the coronavirus, on Tuesday reported a significant rise in COVID-19 deaths and infections.

The health ministry reported 480 new infections and 18 deaths in the week since May 19.

The previous week it reported 279 new cases.

The Washington-based Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) on Tuesday projected a "sharp increase" in the number of infections in Nicaragua and complained of a lack of official data on the virus' spread in the country.

Nicaragua's health ministry provides only weekly, and not daily, updates on the coronavirus.

The Secretary General of Nicaragua's health ministry, Carlos Saenz, said Nicaragua now has a total of 759 infections with 35 deaths.

A prominent Nicaraguan NGO, Citizen Observatory, said the government is hiding the real extent of the crisis.

The true number of cases as of May 20 was 2,300 -- with more than 400 deaths -- and hospitals are being overwhelmed, the NGO says.

Until last week, the government of President Daniel Ortega recognized only 25 coronavirus infections in the country.

"We project a sharp increase in cases in Nicaragua regardless of the limitations we have in access to data," PAHO director Clarissa Etienne told a videoconference in Washington.

Ciro Ugarte, the body's head of emergencies, said it was "essential" the government make figures transparent so as to reduce the impact of the pandemic.

Nicaragua was already experiencing "community transmission," the health body said -- indicating the virus was circulating without health authorities being able to detect the origin of infections.

In contrast to restrictions in other Latin American countries, Nicaragua has been criticized for an almost complete absence of measures to contain the virus.

Ortega's government has kept schools and offices open and maintained crowd-pulling events like the national soccer league.

PAHO requested experts be dispatched to carry out an epidemiological evaluation of the country and the measures that need to be taken, but the government has not responded to that request, according to the agency.