Sat | Dec 4, 2021

Wallace: No untouchables in St James

Most businesses COVID compliant, greater effort needed by others

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2021 | 12:35 AMMark Titus - Sunday Gleaner Writer

Customers queue outside a branch of a financial institution in Montego Bay, St James, ignoring physical-distancing protocols as they wait to conduct business inside. Public health inspector Lennox Wallace is urging businesses to do more to ensure that pro
Customers queue outside a branch of a financial institution in Montego Bay, St James, ignoring physical-distancing protocols as they wait to conduct business inside. Public health inspector Lennox Wallace is urging businesses to do more to ensure that protocols are followed by customers even as they wait on the outside.

Lennox Wallace
Lennox Wallace
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As St James battles a continued rise in COVID-19 cases and a public heath system under severe pressure, rogue villas, taxi operators, businesses and illegal parties are being fingered as the major sources of concern in the fight to bring infection numbers under control.

Speaking with The Sunday Gleaner last week, Lennox Wallace, the chief public health inspector for the parish, said that while he was generally pleased with efforts by the business community to abide by COVID-19 protocols, some had been coming up short.

“The business community have been tremendous in the management of the Disaster Risk Management Act ... and I know it is a difficult time for the businesses because some are operating at a loss, some closed, some continue to struggle,” said Wallace, who has been the parish’s top public health official for the past two years.

He believes infection numbers would have been lower in the parish if there was greater regard for the orders, however, pointing to testing sites as places regularly found in breach of physical-distancing protocols of six feet apart.

“We are having serious challenges with the labs that are doing the testing. We have had to go in with the police to instruct them to take the necessary precaution,” said Wallace, a 28-year veteran in public health. “You find that because of persons going abroad or those who need the result to go back to work, there is a rush. So on the outside of these laboratories is chaotic and we have to be at these locations day in, day out.”

Taxi operators are also being rapped, with some cabbies not wearing masks or insisting that their passengers do same, or even carrying more than the recommended number of passengers.

“We continue to ask them to follow the requisite number of persons that they have in their taxis,” he added. “If they give thought to the fact that they will have to go home to their families, I would expect them to act more responsibly, but they are not following our recommendation, so we are appealing to the passengers, choose wisely because as you see our health facilities are under pressure.”

Wallace’s team of 540 technical health specialists has been conducting mobile tests in major townships across the parish and in heavily populated areas such as Sam Sharpe Square in the heart of Montego Bay on Mondays and Wednesdays. Less than one per cent of his staff has been infected and their morale remains high, he reported.

BPO SECTOR

Last year, a swell in COVID-19 infections linked to an international call centre operation located in St Catherine saw the outsourcing sector becoming the prime suspect in subsequent outbreaks, but Wallace says operators in St James have been leading the fight.

“The BPOs must be singled out for special commendations because most persons when they hear a positive case from a BPO, they believe that there are challenges inside the facilities, but one must remember that these same workers have to go to the transport centre or to the wholesale or supermarket in the general areas, and based on assessment, these are the areas most of the cases are coming from,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

“There are other places that they congregate, but it is not inside the BPO spaces because when we do unannounced visits, we would have seen the protocols being maintained,” he said. “However, we are encouraging all the businesses that you not only monitor inside your facilities, but also the line waiting to get inside because this is where we see the crowding, no masks, and lack of social distancing.”

Wallace credits strategic planning between his office, the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) and Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett for the Resilient Corridor’s clean bill of health.

“We met and designed the protocols and there have been no positive cases, as a result,” he said.

“We set very strict protocols from the beginning, and it has proven to work, so there has been no need for adjustment to how we operate,” said Robin Russell, vice-chair of the JHTA and head of the Montego Bay Chapter.

When contacted, Janet Silvera, president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, lauded the professionalism and openness of the Western Regional Health Authority.

“I would be very shocked to find that there has been a breakdown in communication,” Silvera said. “If anyone is in breach, it is because they are stubborn because the team in western Jamaica have been tremendous. We have been in meetings upon meetings and have been given the kind of information that we would not have normally got from the team.”

She credited the parish’s acting medical officer of health, Dr Tanique Bailey Small, and her team.

According to the chamber boss, the BPO and hospitality sectors have been making all efforts to adhere to the protocols.

“I think they know that to do otherwise would be detrimental to their businesses,” said Silvera.

The health department recently met with approximately 119 businesses to update them on new developments and was encouraged by the support, but is concerned with other areas of the parish that continue to flout the law.

“There are some villas that need to comply, and the parties are not stopping,” Wallace said, adding that the police is responsive when alerted to such breaches.

“As an administrator, there is no one that flouts the law that will not be dealt with. If it is Mr or Mrs So and So, we still go and enforce the Disaster Risk Management Act. It is not who you are,” he told The Sunday Gleaner, pointing out that no one was untouchable.

“I have not experienced visiting a site and I am called by my superiors, anyone from the political directorate or anyone of influence in Jamaica to say, ‘Look away’, and no one on my team has reported any such incident.”

mark.titus@gleanerjm.com