Fri | Sep 17, 2021

COVID FLASHPOINT - Record spike intensifies virus crisis as Gov’t considers tougher measures to stave off health sector collapse

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2021 | 12:28 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter
Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness.
Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness.
National epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster-Kerr
National epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster-Kerr
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It will take another three weeks for Jamaicans to know whether the deadlier, more contagious UK variant of COVID-19 is spreading among its population, but until then, Cabinet may have to take more drastic measures to curtail the spread of the virus...

It will take another three weeks for Jamaicans to know whether the deadlier, more contagious UK variant of COVID-19 is spreading among its population, but until then, Cabinet may have to take more drastic measures to curtail the spread of the virus locally, amid a record high in confirmed cases.

Last Thursday and Friday, Jamaica recorded a total of 591 new cases of the coronavirus, the highest in the country over the period. To put this in context, the island took roughly four months after reporting its first coronavirus case on March 10, 2020, to reach an overall tally of 595 cases.

Yesterday, the health ministry announced that 328 positive cases had been identified on Friday. Kingston and St Andrew (70), St James (53), Manchester (49) and St Catherine (43) lead the caseloads. This pushes Jamaica to 4,074 active coronavirus cases, with 130 of the patients hospitalised. Twenty-one of those patients are moderately ill, while 17 are in critical condition.

National epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster-Kerr characterised Jamaica’s latest COVID-19 predicament as a product of widespread defiance of coronavirus precautionary measures.

“It (COVID-19 rate) was increasing at a more gradual level, but now we are seeing a sharper increase. The incubation period is two weeks, and so, every two weeks, you have another set of increases,” said Webster-Kerr.

“So if you are not careful, it’s two persons infecting four; and four infecting eight; and eight goes to 16. So the rate will increase simply because we are not following the protocols,” she warned.

“We started going up in November. Then we had Christmas, New Year’s [celebrations], and it continued. Unless we all follow the protocols, this is what will happen,” she argued. “This is what we wanted to prevent.”

This sharp increase in numbers will be high on the agenda when Cabinet meets tomorrow, explained Health & Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.

Face-to-face learning

With Jamaica’s positivity rate at almost 15 per cent the reported number, critical questions arise regarding the resumption of face-to-face learning and the green light being given to resume some sporting activities, albeit without spectators.

“Our usual approach is to report to Cabinet for their consideration and decision on measures to be taken. We are examining the number to determine specific geographic or institutional areas of concern, including contact tracing, to determine source of spread,” Tufton told The Sunday Gleaner.

“That would determine our recommendations to Cabinet and would include anything from greater enforcement generally, or in particular areas, to tighter restrictions on movement,” he said.

“Lockdown is always a last resort. Other measures such as enforcement and tighter restrictions are usually preferred, but given the increased numbers, we will have to look at how we can improve compliance,” he added.

In the meantime, the health ministry is trying to determine whether the resumption of face-to-face classes in some schools last month may have contributed to the latest spike in cases. It said that it will continue to inform dialogue surrounding the education, sports and entertainment sectors.

Tufton said he is also considering chartering a flight to send samples off to the Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to test for the latest COVID-19 variant. Flight challenges have caused repeated delays, he said.

“With regard to the new variant, we have been having difficulties to get the samples to CARPHA in Trinidad for testing. So we are still not yet able to say if the new variant or any other is in our population,” he said.

“I have, however, asked that we look at a charter flight … . I expect arrangements to be made this week,” he relayed, adding that it will take three weeks for those results to be returned to Jamaica.

Meanwhile, Tufton said the risk of the public-health system being overwhelmed is evident, but lauded resolute medical practitioners. Still, he bemoaned a shortage of hospital beds, ICU units, “as well as the stress on staff to respond to persons who are symptomatic”.

The shortage of hospital beds was of specific concern to Opposition Spokesman on Health Dr Morais Guy, who also raised questions about the coronavirus testing mechanism and the lack of answers on the new strain.

“The capacity to handle is mainly regarding bed space for the hospitalised. ... If this increase continues, soon we will be out of COVID-19 beds and other beds will have to be tasked for the care of COVID-19 cases, putting severe pressure on an already-stressed health sector,” he argued.

“The question is: What number of those of yesterday’s and today’s (Thursday’s and Friday’s) are older samples which had been collected but not tested? I am of the view that there have been samples which have not been tested for some time,” he posited.

No surprise

Yesterday, news of the increased numbers came as no surprise to Dr Alfred Dawes, past president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association and director of the Windsor Wellness Centre.

Since last August, Dawes has been warning about impending coronavirus surges owing to general election campaigning and other social gathering activities in that period.

Following a Sunday Gleaner exposé about unauthorised medical practitioners conducting COVID-19 tests, the Government expanded the number of approved testing facilities islandwide.

“More testing definitely will mean more cases. The true picture is only now emerging. The number of cases has always been higher than reported. What you need to look at now is the number of hospitalisations and deaths,” Dawes said, arguing also that testing for the new variant is costly and unnecessary for Jamaica.

Dr Andrew Manning, president of the Medical Association of Jamaica, agrees.

“The consequence of this surge is going to be more deaths; it’s a matter of statistics. The more cases you have, then a certain percentage of them are going to get seriously ill and more persons are going to die,” he said, chiding wide-scale non-compliance to coronavirus protocols as the main factor.

“What you find is that the number of deaths tend to lag behind the numbers of new cases by a couple of weeks. So in a couple of weeks, we are going to see more deaths, unfortunately, and at a time when the hospitals are under severe challenges. We don’t have a lot of capacity to deal with hospital admissions.”

“Ward full. This is real,” one doctor tweeted yesterday.

“Last time I saw a full ward was Alor*ca; but this time, they’re not asymptomatic and dancing, ppl sick,” she added, censoring the name of a Portmore-based call centre which was the source of a COVID-29 cluster early in the local outbreak.

Responding to a fellow Twitter user who posted, “we doomed”, the doctor said: “We’re not doomed. We need to be more aware of the reality and act more responsibly. Trust that healthcare workers are doing their best to preserve the health of the population, but it all starts with the ppl.”

corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com