BOGOTÁ, Colombia—A four-day lockdown began Friday amid a surge in Covid-19 cases that the mayor of this capital city attributed to the new virus strain from the U.K., though national health authorities denied the contagious variant was in the country.
Mayor Claudia López ordered all nonessential businesses shut until Tuesday. Residents in this city of eight million will have to remain at home with the exception of health-care, transportation and security workers.
The announcement came as Colombian officials reported a record of more than 17,000 new cases Thursday, after setting a series of new highs in recent days.
More than 86% of ICU beds are occupied and more than a third of Bogotá’s 60 hospitals no longer have space for Covid-19 patients, according to city health officials. Colombia has the second-most cases in Latin America at more than 1.7 million, topped only by Brazil’s 7.8 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins. Colombia had recorded more than 45,000 deaths as of Thursday.
Authorities had anticipated an increase in infections following the holidays. But Ms. López said a jump in hospitalizations was among the signs that the U.K. virus strain is already in the country. That variant is known to spread as much as 70% faster than earlier versions, though it hasn’t been shown to be deadlier.
“Certainly the travelers that entered the country in December brought the new strain of the virus,” said Ms. López, who earlier this week cut short her own vacation to Costa Rica amid the rise in cases. “We can’t see any other reason for the virus load we are finding in patients.”
President Iván Duque as well as Colombia’s National Health Institute refuted the mayor’s comments, saying that the U.K. strain hadn’t been found in the country. However, they noted that other variants, including one from Canada and another from California, had already been detected in Colombia.
“The strains are going to keep appearing and the number [of strains] is going to keep rising with the free global circulation of the virus,” Mr. Duque said. The government last month suspended flights to and from the U.K. and has increased its monitoring efforts of travelers that have passed through there.
Martha Ospina, director of the National Health Institute, said that it was unlikely that new strains alone could account for 10% or more of the recent increase in cases. “Therefore it wouldn’t explain the situation in Bogotá at this moment.”
Bogotá, which has logged a quarter of the nation’s cases, had already applied restrictions on mobility and alcohol sales in order to contain gatherings and the spread of the virus before expanding the measures. The Health Ministry says it will begin a national vaccination program in February when it is slated to receive its first large shipment of vaccines.
“It’s hard to start the year taking these kinds of measures,” Ms. López said, “but it’s up to all of us to make sure we get through this second peak quickly.”