Thu | Nov 26, 2020

Danger on the front lines - Concerns mount as emergency services take virus hit amid surge in cases

Published:Sunday | August 30, 2020 | 1:11 AMLivern Barrett - Senior Staff Reporter
Medical technicians demonstrating the use of the COBAS 6800 machine used to test for COVID-19 at the official handover at the National Public Health Laboratory in Kingston in April.
Medical technicians demonstrating the use of the COBAS 6800 machine used to test for COVID-19 at the official handover at the National Public Health Laboratory in Kingston in April.

The number of confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases among some of Jamaica’s front-line workers or first responders is on the rise as they confront new challenges emanating from a second wave of the deadly respiratory illness.

More than a dozen doctors, 10 nurses and 16 cops have contracted the virus, the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association (JMDA), the Nurses Association of Jamaica (NAJ) and police officials have disclosed.

However, “over 200” cops are now in quarantine, either awaiting the results of their tests or waiting to get tested, one official told The Sunday Gleaner on condition of anonymity, cautioning that this could cause the number of positive cases within the ranks of the police force to soar.

Police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay acknowledged that the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) has been doing the calculations, but said she did not have the numbers at hand. She promised to provide the figures, but that did not happen up to late yesterday.

Approximately 25 nurses across the island were in the same position up to last Thursday, NAJ President Carmen Johnson confirmed.

“We are still waiting on results and we are still trying to ascertain what is happening,” Johnson said.

Dr Mindi Fitz-Henley, president of the JMDA, painted a grim picture of the brave fight by her colleagues to help contain the outbreak.

“The members are exhausted, both physically and mentally, but are trying their best to continue on in Jamaica’s fight against COVID,” she said in emailed responses to The Sunday Gleaner.

The Jamaica Defence Force did not respond to queries about the number of members affected by the virus.

According to the police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, 14 of the 16 cops contracted the coronavirus during the second wave of the outbreak, widely accepted as commencing on June 1 when the Government began a phased re-opening of the Jamaican borders to incoming passengers.

Kingston and St Andrew, St Mary and St Ann are among the parishes where cops have reportedly tested positive for the virus.

Police Commissioner Antony Anderson has also tested positive.

Seven of the 10 nurses tested positive in the second wave, Johnson disclosed. It is unclear how many doctors contracted the virus in this new phase.

On March 21 this year, 11 days after Jamaica confirmed its first case of COVID-19, the country’s air and sea ports were closed to incoming passengers as part of the efforts by the Government to limit the spread of the virus.

The restriction was lifted, first on June 1 for Jamaicans returning home, then on June 15 for international travel. Health authorities reported at the time that Jamaica had recorded 588 confirmed COVID-19 cases with nine deaths.

Since then, the number of confirmed cases and deaths have more than doubled. Jamaica recorded a single-day record of 141 new COVID cases last Friday, pushing the total since the outbreak to 2,011 with 19 deaths, according to figures compiled by the Ministry of Health & Wellness.

Yesterday’s figures were not yet released at press time.

Not many ‘surprises’

Pointing to the projections developed before confirmation of the first case, Minister of Health & Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton insisted on Thursday that in Jamaica’s case, there are “not a lot of surprises” at this stage of the outbreak.

“The fact is that once you start opening up [the borders], you expect that you are going to get a surge, and this is exactly what we getting now. So, I don’t think that people should be overly surprised,” he said.

“You want to try and manage it by involving people and to minimise any behaviour that could overwhelm the system, which is why we stress personal responsibility,” said Tufton.

The NAJ president warned, however, that challenges emerging from the surge could have dire implications for the country’s already frail and under-resourced public healthcare system.

One of the biggest issues, she said, is that citizens are showing up at public hospitals for “regular illnesses”, including injuries sustained in motor vehicle crashes, and test positive for the coronavirus.

“So, it means that a number of our healthcare workers are now placed at risk. A patient’s result may come back in five days and you then realise that you were with that patient a number of days, so five or 10 of you (nurses) were exposed and have to now go off [on quarantine],” Johnson said.

“If every week we are sending off five or 10 or 20, it means that within a month or by two months, we are going to be crippling the healthcare system, and that’s one of our biggest concerns,” she added, while again imploring citizens to observe the containment measures that are in place.

Nurses caught off guard

The acceleration of the spread of the virus also appears to have caught the nurses off guard.

“My members are very concerned about the spike. Though we knew we would have had it, we weren’t expecting it to move that fast,” Johnson admitted. “It has created some level of dislocation, discomfort and apprehension. Nevertheless, they are trying to remain firm to the work that they have been employed to do since they are the trained ones.”

A vexed issue for cops is the absence of their own dedicated channels for testing, according to Sergeant Patrae Rowe, chairman of the Jamaica Police Federation, which represents the interests of cops up to the rank of inspector. Rowe, who tested negative but remains quarantined, declined to disclose the total number of cops who have contracted the virus.

“It cannot be that police officers have to wait in the regular queue for testing and the return of those results take inordinately long because there is an increased demand for policing service, especially now in a time when we have high activities like campaigning and election,” Rowe lamented.

“It cannot be that police officers are unduly detained or delayed from doing tests and knowing their status as it relates to COVID-19.”

Tufton said he would be willing to meet with the federation to discuss their concerns “because we definitely try to give some priority to front-line workers like healthcare workers, and the police would definitely qualify for that”.

Last week, at least two members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, based at offices inside the Urban Development Corporation building in downtown Kingston, tested positive for the coronavirus.

There were reports, too, that close to half the personnel assigned duties at the Olympic Gardens Police Station last Wednesday did not show up amid fears that a sergeant there had been exposed to the virus.

“Everybody is aware of the situation, but dem not doing anything to close the station and have it sanitised,” complained one cop, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Rowe said he was aware of the concerns at Olympic Gardens Police Station and that attempts were being made to address them.

livern.barrett@gleanerjm.com