Some people have asked me if I am going to do another update on COVID-19. We had two back-to-back press briefings and an online event with the Minister of Tourism, which I missed, at the end of this week.
But first here are the latest numbers: We have two new cases today – June 14 (total cases to date: 617, including 116 imported) and no new recoveries (total to date: 420). Both new cases are Jamaicans returning from Florida. Two critically ill patients are among the 187 (30.3%) active cases currently under observation; they are in ICUs at a hospital and monitored closely. With 189 patients in isolation, seven persons-of-interest in government quarantine and 1,499 in home quarantine, Jamaica’s health departments are currently following 854 close contacts of confirmed cases.
The Ministry of Health and Wellness “quick but thorough” (Minister’s words) press briefing on Thursday June 11 gave us the daily numbers. The Ministry is now doing at least one weekly update, besides the Office of the Prime Minister’s more wide-ranging weekly briefings. Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett and Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith also attended. Here is what was said at the Ministry briefing:
- Minister Tufton addressed concerns expressed by returning Jamaicans housed at the 138 Student Living facility at the University of the West Indies regarding delays in their test results. He said samples are taken at care sites and transported to the National Public Health Lab in Kingston, which operates 24 hours per day. Testing is done in batches, and results are usually returned within 24 to 36 hours. There may be several reasons why it may take longer: sometimes they need to be redone, and sometimes the equipment has “downtime.” There is also a staff shortage issue. Positive patients must get two negative tests over 48 hours before being released.
- Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Jacqueline Bisasor McKenzie disclosed these figures: A total of 3,289 Jamaicans have been repatriated (April 20 to June 10) including deportees. From May 6 – 26, 1,262 returned from cruise ships. Between June 1 – 10 there were 22 flights, carrying 989 passengers (15 into Kingston, 7 into Montego Bay). Airline travelers had a positive rate of 1.6%. 49 returned on cruise ships, with positives of 3%. Overall, the CMO concluded that the returning Jamaicans had been keeping themselves safe, as positives had not been too high. She stressed that all returning Jamaicans in home quarantine MUST take personal responsibility, avoid vulnerable people and report any symptoms immediately.
- Minister Kamina Johnson Smith said “The more people want to come, the more airlines will fly and we want to stimulate those sectors.” She mentioned recent flights from the UK, Cayman islands and Trinidad and there will soon be flights from the Bahamas and Antigua and Barbuda.
- The immigration form on the Ministry of Health and Wellness website has been simplified – any Jamaican who wants to return has a one-step process. If there are delays in receiving notifications/approval, they should check back as their form might be incomplete; or go to FAQs on the website for contact information.
- Minister Tufton toured the Norman Manley International Airport recently. 60 health officials and others (over 100) processed a flight of around 100 travelers and he was impressed. The challenge, he said, is when the number of travelers increases – from 100 to thousands. He said the data-gathering aspect of the work is very important – and asked the public for patience as they fine-tune the process.
- Minister Tufton noted that “We will still test everyone even if they have taken a test prior to arrival.”
- Minister Bartlett emphasized that the Ministries work together in partnership (this point was repeated by Minister Tufton). He noted five critical guidelines: 1) robust protocols for visitors – noting the World Travel and Tourism Council had given Jamaica’s plan their seal of approval. 2) training for tourism workers in 11 disciplines – mainly health-related but also online courses in languages (Spanish) and Tourism and Law for senior staff (67 trained), all developed with UWI. 3) PPEs – ensuring supplies and training in their use. 4) communication with international partners. 5) a “staggered approach” to reopening.
- Incoming: Seven flights will arrive on June 15. From June 15 – 30th we are expecting approx. 70 flights. This will add up to around 5 – 6,000 visitors. “It’s a start,” said Minister Bartlett, adding: “We need to ensure that we have the capacity.” Tourists must register on this website for travel authorization.
- Bookings: Minister Bartlett says holiday bookings from June 30 are 40 – 45% of normal for the time of year. He expects the usual dip in September/October.
- The Ministry has visited 106 accommodations, and 36 indicated they are ready to start up. All have been given COVID-19 Resilient certificates by the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo).
- The COVID-Resilient Corridor (consisting of about 85% of Jamaica’s tourism assets) will run along the north coast main road from Negril to Port Antonio and all properties (small, medium, villas etc) on the sea side. “We can manage this area better,” said Minister Bartlett. Sports facilities, attractions, nightclubs etc. will NOT be open. It will NOT include the south coast or mid-island. It will NOT include Air B&Bs at this stage.
- In answer to a question, Minister Bartlett said, “Testing is on the table – visitors and locals alike will be tested as of June 15.”
- The National Arena is no longer under consideration as a field hospital. Minister Tufton said an alternative is being looked at – building out additional capacity at a permanent facility would be more cost-effective than a temporary measure.
- Over-65 tourists: While Jamaicans over 65 are considered high risk and are told to stay home as much as possible, tourists in the same age group will be free to travel around – “no discrimination,” said Minister Tufton. (I enquired about this).
- Masks: I also asked a question about the noticeable decline in wearing masks among the Jamaican public and Minister Tufton shared my concern about this. He said more public education needs to be done: “We have to get Jamaicans to appreciate that personal responsibility is an important part” of fighting COVID-19. Minister Bartlett said 10,000 masks had been purchased for distribution to tourism workers. The CMO added that “there comes a point in time when the public becomes desensitized. We are at a very critical juncture with reopening. Now is the time, more than ever, that every Jamaican has the responsibility…to spread the word that the outbreak is not over.”
- “The virus is still out there. It is still a threat.” All agreed.
- When asked about rapid testing before arrival, the CMO mentioned a “high level of unreliability” in rapid tests (which are antibody tests) – “not the way to go.” She also noted that “testing is of the now.” Subsequent monitoring and surveillance of visitors (at hotels) is much more important.
- When asked, Minister Tufton noted the Government would be obliged to provide care for tourists who fall ill, in the normal course of things. Minister Bartlett said he has made arrangements with some insurance providers to cover COVID-19 and is also in discussion with an international logistics company regarding repatriation of sick visitors – he expects to have an agreement by month-end.
- The deportees arrived on May 28. Two were initially positive and are in isolation. The others were negative and have just been discharged.
- You can apply for a test on the “jamcovid” website. The CMO said not many were doing this. Surveillance within the population is very important at this time, she added, urging the public to make an appointment for a test or call health department or MOHW hotline. You will have an interview process first.
There has been considerable confusion over the issue of the testing of tourists (and who gets tested). Minister Bartlett confirmed that almost all those to arrive this month will be from the United States, a “high risk” country, and also some from Canada. So, in effect, most tourists will be tested at the airport. At the Prime Minister’s press briefing on Friday (June 12) it was reiterated:
- All non-nationals visiting Jamaica for business purposes for less than 14 days will be required to be tested at the airport or other designated facility. They will then await their test results under quarantine at their hotel/intended address. If the test is positive, they would be isolated either at their hotel/intended address or in a government facility. If the test is negative, they would be released from quarantine. They must, however, adhere to all measures for controlling risk of spread.
- Non-national tourists will be subject to testing if they are assessed as high risk either as a result of coming from countries designated as high risk for COVID-19 transmission based on classification by the World Health Organisation or due to other risk factors such as exhibiting symptoms or exposure to persons who have tested positive.
- Persons assessed as high risk would have their sample taken at the airport or other facility & await their test result at their hotel or resort under the “stay in zone” measure. If the test is negative, they would remain under the “stay in zone” measure. If the test is positive, they would be isolated either at the hotel/resort or in a government facility. Persons not assessed as high risk (from “travel bubble” countries) will be allowed to go to their hotel/resort under the “stay in zone” measure. This means, they are required for the duration of their stay in Jamaica to remain within the “COVID-19 Resilient Corridor”.
There is no doubt that these three ministries have been working incredibly hard for the past three months or so on COVID-19. Whether we have the capacity to manage all of this from here on in, remains to be seen. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!