Editorial | Pull back from the COVID cliff
Apart from Jamaica’s clean medal sweep in the Women’s 100 metres at the Tokyo Olympics, the best bit of news last weekend was Health Minister Christopher Tufton’s claim of young people turning up for COVID-19 vaccinations. Unfortunately, Minister Tufton’s statement was based on anecdotal evidence rather than empirical data. We hope, though, that Dr Tufton is eventually proven right.
What, based on hard numbers, is not in dispute is that Jamaica is facing a renewed, and deepening, wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Which calls into question Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ half-measure a week ago in tightening COVID-19 protocols. Mr Holness promised to review the regime by August 12, when, he suggested, he might toughen the measures. He should not wait. As we urged him to do last week, the PM should take far more muscular action now so as to head off the crisis and place Jamaica in better stead for the start of the new school year in September.
When on July 25 Mr Holness announced the new limits on the number of people allowed at public functions, as well as the earlier starts, and an extension by three hours to the nightly curfews, he said it was because the evidence was showing a sharp uptick in the COVID-19 cases – which was likely to get worse. Up that point in July, there were over 1,300 new cases for the month, and the positivity rate for infections on the day Mr Holness spoke was 16 per cent. The day before that, it was 18.1 per cent. The reproductive rate, or the rate of transmission from infected people to other persons, was 1.4 per cent, rather than the below one percent, which the experts say is required to contain the spread of the virus.
SITUATION GROWN WORSE
Since then, the situation has grown decidedly worse. Over the six days from July 25 to July 31, there were 1,057 new cases of COVID-19. The positivity rate was more than one in five (20.89 per cent). During that period, it fluctuated between a low of 13.9 per cent (Thursday) and a high of 31 per cent (Saturday). Significantly, the last two days of that review period had the highest ratio of positive tests. The rate on Friday was 24 per cent.
Other data not only highlight the worsening situation, but provide a comparative benchmark for why Jamaicans should be deeply concerned. On July 25, the day of Mr Holness’ soft-handed tightening, there were 105 new cases of the virus. On July 31, there were 342, an increase of more than 225 per cent. More significantly, the only time Jamaica recorded a higher case count was 381, on April 10, when the island was into the second wave of the virus. Similarly, on July 31, there were 187 people in hospital with COVID-19. That was only two fewer patients than on May 10, towards the peak of the second wave.
Clearly, Mr Holness has been vindicated. On July 25, he said: “What we are seeing (now), in two weeks’ time, it will probably be worse.” Yet, for reasons that are difficult to comprehend – except, maybe, the scientists were not compelling, or there are more persuasive interests in the Cabinet – the prime minister chose the softer option, leaving in place room for the kinds of events that are superspreaders of COVID-19. Many of those will happen over the next several days leading up to, and during the weekend of, the August 6 celebration of the island’s anniversary of Independence.
The Government has said that among its key strategic considerations is creating an environment that after two years of disruption, is conducive to a return to classroom education in September. Online teaching and learning left too many students either in the margins or outside of the system altogether. Containing the spread of the virus now with measures of social restraint – including the mandates for wearing masks, physical distancing, and good hygiene – would be supportive of this policy intent.
Restraint now would be bolstered by an enhanced programme of inoculations, about which Minister Tufton is optimistic because of increased access to vaccines and his perception of a breakthrough against vaccine hesitancy among young people. Last week, Jamaica received a gift of 300,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from Britain, and Dr Tufton projects a supply of up to 1.4 million doses, from various sources, before the end of September.
“While we are targeting 300,000 by the end of September, I strongly believe that we can inoculate an additional 800,000 to what has already been achieved,” Dr Tufton said. That would mean about 35 per cent of the population having at least one dose of a vaccine against six per cent currently. Those numbers may yet be attained, but the possibility is that the achievement is in a situation of deeper crisis.
As the epidemiologists know, and should have told the prime minister, or at least reminded him, two weeks is a long time for the evolution and management of COVID-19. If they didn’t, they should be held to account for dereliction of duty. There is evidence from a year ago, in the period of the Emancipation and Independence celebrations in early August, and then the campaign for the general election, when there were also spikes in the COVID-19 numbers. And we know what happened earlier this year.
In the circumstances, Prime Minister Holness should not wait until August 12 to put in fixes for a problem he has warned is around the corner and on whose solutions he has been advised. He ought to have known that his July 25 piecemeal approach was flawed, and if he did not, he knows it now. He should not double down on a policy error.