COVID-19 in Jamaica: boosting, testing, vaccinating, and the Fourth Wave

We got our booster shots this week. Our regular vaccination centre was bursting at the seams, so we drove down the road apiece to St. Joseph’s Hospital. As far as getting a needle stuck in your arm can be a pleasant experience – it really was! We sat under a big, airy tent on the hospital’s spacious grounds, and one doctor explained possible side effects to each one of us in a sensible and matter of fact way, answering questions from everyone. Another doctor wheeled a trolley with the vaccines in a small igloo.

St. Joseph’s Hospital, with Wareika Hill/Long Mountain behind. (My photo)

So that was done. I admit that I felt pretty lousy the following day (my husband had a mere headache). I felt very much like the Jamaican version of a tweet that made me laugh. After his booster, this American tweeter said he “felt like a bug that’s hit the windshield of a 1975 Ford Country Squire LTD station wagon on a family trip through Indiana in August.” Detailed and accurate! The next day, however, I woke up feeling a hundred times better.

The third shipment from the United States arrived on December 15, and consists of 204,750 vaccines, bringing the U.S. Government’s donation to date to 617,760.  (Photo: Ministry of Health and Wellness)  It is worthy of note that since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Embassy has contributed over J$1.8 billion (US$12 million) in support of Jamaica’s fight against the virus, donating vaccines, two field hospitals, medical supplies, motor vehicles and other essential equipment.

At first, booster shots were only available to healthcare workers and over-60s like us. However, when Jamaica received another generous donation of Pfizer vaccines from the United States, the Ministry of Health and Wellness quickly decided to open up the possibility of boosters for all Jamaicans over 18 years old. Was it too soon? Some believed so – and especially since the vaccination of high school aged kids seems to be going rather slowly. However, taking everything into consideration this was probably the right move, in my (non-medical) view, considering that we have plenty of vaccines.

Minister Tufton pointed out at a press briefing last week that Jamaica currently has over one million doses of various vaccines in hand (AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson and Sinopharm) and noted in a press release:

“The evidence of the OMICRON variant has shown some reduction in efficacy in some vaccines and it is being recommended in some instances that booster shots can improve the efficacy and, therefore, increase the protection from the virus. Additionally, it has been shown that persons who have had infection can be re-infected as natural immunity does not provide enough protection.”

Booster doses will be administered with the following guidelines:

  • Persons who have taken AstraZeneca and are 6 months after their second dose can now receive a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Persons who have taken a Pfizer vaccine and are now 6 months after their second dose can now receive a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Persons who have taken the single dose of the Johnson and Johnson and are now 2 months after taking that dose can now get a dose of Johnson & Johnson as their booster, or may wait until 6 months after taking the first dose to receive a booster of the Pfizer vaccine.

Children 12 to 17 years are not required to get a booster at this time.

To receive a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, members of the public should visit any of the Ministry’s vaccination sites. Persons should take their vaccination card and a government-issued identification or letter from a Justice of the Peace.

Although younger age groups have the most cases, and one in 1,000 have died, the number of deaths in the older age groups one in five people have died. (Slide from Ministry of Health and Wellness press briefing on December 15, 2021)

The Ministry is about to launch its digital vaccination card – there was a bit of a technical glitch I understand, so the launch has been postponed until things are all ironed out.

And please note: Almost 99 percent of those who have died were unvaccinated!

“Not where we want to be,” said Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Karen Webster-Kerr. Still more than half of older Jamaicans are unvaccinated – and in the younger age groups, around three quarters unvaccinated. It’s not impressive.

Now, a word on testing. Paediatrician (and pioneering human rights activist, but with her “medical hat” firmly in place here) Dr. Carolyn Gomes has been campaigning for some time for increased testing. There are of course barriers to this and perhaps the primary one is the ridiculous cost of PCR and Antigen tests – all of them, really. So, only Jamaicans who can travel (and/or can afford the tests) are going to be tested. This, in my mind, renders the daily numbers produced by the Ministry somewhat meaningless. I have asked about testing several times at press briefings and have reached the conclusion that only people who go to the public hospitals with symptoms get tested. What about the people out there in far-flung communities, with “bad flu,” who are trying old-fashioned remedies to get well? Or those who are trying to ignore their symptoms altogether, while spreading the virus to others?

Having said that, the Ministry has announced today that it has approved ten more testing sites, bringing the total of private testing facilities island-wide to 24. The screening for these sites was done by the Jamaica National Agency for Accreditation (JANAAC).

On test kits, Minister Tufton announced that the Ministry is encouraging the use of home test kits “in a particular context” and that private interests can apply to import these (so far three have applied). Once approved the Ministry will allow them to be imported and the Government plans to import about 150,000 of these kits approved by the WHO and FDA – they will be at no cost to the public and Government decide on how they will be distributed. “Their accuracy is not as guaranteed as the PCR test,” said Minister Tufton, so a protocol/advice will be put out on the Ministry website in due course.

Meanwhile, Managing Director of Sandals Resorts Adam Stewart has expressed his concerns today, tweeting about testing and our schoolchildren. He made a suggestion that, to me, makes a lot of sense:

Kids need to be back in school! The CDC recommends antigen testing to keep safe and return permanently to in class learning. Policy that allows a select few to make huge profits creating a barrier to keeping all society safe is fundamentally wrong!

I hope the Government is listening – in particular, the Minister of Education. We must get our kids back to school, and innovative solutions are needed, urgently. I feel that we are muddling along on this one.

More information from the press briefing: St. Ann, St. James, and Hanover have the highest number of cases per population. Hanover has the highest number of deaths per population, followed by St. James. Western Jamaica is not doing well – especially our smallest parish of Hanover.

It has been easing, but there is still pressure on our hospital system. We are currently “hovering around just over 5 percent,” said Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Karen Webster-Kerr.

Footnote: Thank goodness, Jamaica lifted its travel ban on several African countries on December 16. This, of course, was the knee-jerk reaction to the news of the Omicron variant.

Tomorrow, there will be another pre-Christmas press briefing – this time, focusing on the coming Fourth Wave. Will it arrive, and if so when? Is it still far out at sea, or almost upon us?

“We are anticipating a Fourth Wave…We are hoping that it will not be as severe…We anticipate that it will come in the New Year,” said Minister Tufton on December 15.

Stay tuned!

The vaccine trolley at St. Joseph’s. (My photo)

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