By Agustín Geist BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentine President Alberto Fernández was clear when COVID-19 hit the country for the first time early last year: saving lives at all costs outweighed any economic concerns. Now facing a second wave of infections, the South American nation has adjusted its strategy to prioritize protecting its fragile economy. It is hoped that increased expertise in treating coronavirus, a nascent vaccine program, and short regional closures can help keep the virus under control. The second wave comes at a delicate moment for the center-left Peronist government. He is heading into the midterm elections in October to defend his majority in Congress, his popularity hit by a strict and prolonged lockdown last year and the heavy economic blow. The grain producer is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund to roll over some $ 45 billion in loans that it cannot repay and needs to boost economic growth to bring in much-needed hard currency. And creditors are looking for signs of recovery after last year’s sovereign debt restructuring. The Fernández administration wants to avoid imposing a blanket blockade, instead using data on the number of cases to establish localized short-term restrictions, tighten sanitary measures and maintain border controls, a government source said. The government also wants to speed up the launch of a vaccine that was delayed by supply shortages, with the goal of getting all medical workers and those at high risk vaccinated before the rapidly approaching southern winter. Argentina’s economy contracted around 10% last year, the third consecutive year of recession, and Economy Minister Martín Guzmán has said it “could not bear” another total shutdown. Poverty levels rose to 42% in the second half of last year. The country has recorded around 2.4 million coronavirus cases and more than 56,000 deaths, and a second wave is forming with recent daily cases at 80% of the peak and rising, a Reuters tally of official data shows. . On Tuesday, infections hit a daily record. “The second wave and incidence of cases could be even worse when the variants take hold,” said Tomás Orduna, an infectious disease specialist who advises the government, referring to the ‘Brazilian’ P1 variant and others that run through the region. ‘WARNING LIGHTS’ Argentine infectious disease expert Martin Hojman said winter in the southern hemisphere and the reopening of activities would continue to drive the second wave. He said the rate of vaccinations, which has seen some 4.3 million doses administered so far in a country with a population of around 45 million, was not fast enough. Leda Guzzi, an infectious disease expert based in Buenos Aires, said there had been a very substantial jump in cases over the past month, noting that the ‘R number’, which measures transmission rates, has skyrocketed in some areas. “When this index is greater than 1.2 it means that cases are accelerating in a worrying way and that the warning lights must be turned on … This is happening in several jurisdictions and several departments,” he said. Despite that, schools and restaurants in most places are open and many Argentines say they don’t want another strict closure. “I think there must be a middle ground where the economy does not collapse and stores do not close and so many people are left on the street and without work,” said Ambar Rujal, a 19-year-old student in Buenos Aires. Jorge Giacobbe, a Buenos Aires-based political analyst, said the government would not want to risk upsetting voters so close to the October legislative elections. “There will be restrictions, but the government knows that it cannot make harsh restrictions again. People will not allow it after having undergone such a strict quarantine in 2020,” he said.