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Health worker tests positive - COVID cases rise to 36; unions appeal to docs’, nurses’ patriotism against heading to US

Published:Monday | March 30, 2020 | 12:00 AMRomario Scott/Gleaner Writer

Jamaica last night recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 among healthcare workers, opening a new frontier of contraction that might raise concerns about protocols and gear to protect front-line public-health personnel .

Hospital staff have called for adequate personal protective equipment to limit contagion from the novel coronavirus, with 36 infections being recorded in Jamaica. One person, a 79-year-old male, has died.

The healthcare worker is a 45-year-old woman who was a contact of a confirmed case, the Ministry of Health and Wellness said in a press statement issued shortly before 11 p.m. on Sunday. The worker’s profession was not disclosed, nor was it immediately clear if infection took place while treating a patient.

The healthcare worker was one of four new infections announced by the ministry in two late-evening releases. Among them is a 54-year-old woman from St Mary, whose mode of transmission is under investigation.

Two other cases were announced yesterday – a 34-year-old woman from St James and a 74-year-old female from St Catherine. Both have a travel history from New York.

Twenty-three of Jamaica’s cases have been confirmed as imported, while another 11 are import-related. Two are under investigation.

The case of a 60-year-old Portland woman whose contraction genesis was undetermined for about a week has been classified as import-related.

With the COVID-19 pandemic already putting a strain on the public-health sector in Jamaica, a new threat might be looming large with the United States Department of State moving to tap countries for medical professionals to fight its own outbreak of the disease.

The US has become the epicentre of the latest explosive wave of the novel coronavirus, with infection-control expert Dr Anthony Fauci predicting that deaths there could top 200,000.

New York, a state with high Caribbean migrant density and which has been linked with several imported cases into Jamaica – including two of yesterday’s confirmations – accounts for more than 60,000 infections and 1,000-plus fatalities. Approximately 2,400 deaths have been recorded so far from 135,000 infections across the US.

It is the spectre of what has emerged to be a near-apocalyptic public-health emergency that appears to have sparked Washington’s appeal for doctors and nurses to buttress America’s now-buckling heathcare infrastructure.

“We encourage medical professionals seeking work in the US on a work or exchange visitor visa (H or J), particularly those working on COVID-19 issues, to contact the nearest US Embassy/Consulate for a visa appointment,” the State Department said in a news post on its website.

Attempts to seek clarification from Jeremiah Knight of the US Embassy in Kingston were unsuccessful.

Reacting to the apparent US recruitment drive, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton appealed for sensitivity, highlighting guidelines put in place by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“While we cannot limit the freedom of health personnel to migrate to countries that wish to admit and employ them, we would certainly like to implore developed countries to act in accordance with the WHO Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel and avoid active overseas recruitment in countries that are experiencing either a temporary health crisis during which health professionals are in dire need or a chronic shortage of health workers,” the minister said.

Meanwhile, Nurses’ Association of Jamaica (NAJ) President Carmen Johnson is wary that migration of Jamaican nurses could shut down the local health sector.

“The effect it would have, you know, it simply means that more than half of our healthcare system could be crippled,” the NAJ president warned.

That crisis would be exacerbated if worst-case modelling by the Ministry of Health and Wellness – projecting infections of more than half the 2.7 million population – emerged anywhere near that forecast. The average global death rate is about four per cent.

“It would simply mean that you would have a number of persons coming in but nobody to care for them,” Johnson told The Gleaner.

But the NAJ boss said that she is banking on the patriotism of local nurses to stay in the island to fight off the disease.

“I think the greater portion of our nurses, at this present time, are committed to remaining in Jamaica to ensure that our healthcare system is able to stand up to the challenges that we may further face with the COVID crisis.

Currently, there are more than 4,500 nurses and 3,000-plus doctors working in the island. Attrition of nurses by migration ranges from 300-500 annually in Jamaica.

Johnson said she was not aware of any recruitment agencies currently in the island but noted that the main suitors usually use online platforms in their quest.

President of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association, Dr Elon Thompson, also weighed in on the State Department’s call, saying that he, too, was counting on local physicians’ sense of duty to Jamaica to remain. He admitted, however, that there was nothing preventing them from taking up the offer.

“We have been seeing the migration of doctors over the years. I don’t know why, in a time like this, it would significantly increase. I think the public can rest assured that the doctors are going to stay committed to the country,” Thompson said.

“It cannot be that when you are in a crisis, that is when you want to give money as an incentive to come into a situation like this,” he added.

Jamaica’s 36 COVID-19 confirmations, from 294 tests, represent a positive rate of around 12 per cent.

But the health ministry has come under pressure that its low incident rate might be related to the low test volumes – pressure that has prodded the Holness administration to move to ramp up the capacity to capture a larger aggregate to assess the country’s position on the curve.

The island has been put on warning to expect a surge in numbers as community transmission takes hold.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness said that it currently has the capacity for about 2,700 more tests, with another 6,000 kits to come from the Pan American Health Organization in weeks.