COVID-19 in Jamaica: Are we done with it now?

Jamaica has “flown the gate” and we are all free!

On April 15, 2022, the last remaining COVID-19 restrictions in Jamaica were allowed to lapse, following an announcement by the Prime Minister in Parliament on March 17 that did away with most of them. Since then, our Government has been “hands off.” We can all relax. The Minister of Health and Wellness Christopher Tufton can now go paragliding and has been addressing other important health issues, such as prostate cancer, tobacco control, etc. COVID-19 press briefings are no more. The Opposition Spokesman on Health, Dr. Morais Guy, is unhappy at this development, describing it as “reckless.”

We know, also, that Tourism is King (or perhaps even to be worshipped as a god of sorts). Health and the environment come a distant second and third. We have seen this played out (although not explicitly, but still rather obviously) on occasion, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, tourism has overcome all obstacles – and in particular, health. Priorities!

On a page with the slogan “Jamaica Cares” and declaring itself in the marketing jargon favored by our Tourism Minister to be “prepared, nimble, resilient,” Jamaica is fully open for business. As of last Friday, no COVID testing is needed for visitors to the island; travelers do not need to be vaccinated; there are no restrictions on movements or quarantine; and visitors are merely “encouraged” to sanitize, wear masks and social distance. They don’t have to, and nor do we locals. However, it’s interesting to note that visitors from the U.S. and Canada may face some restrictions on returning to their countries.

By the way, what is the percentage of tourism workers who are fully vaccinated now?

Freedom! Fun! For now, at least.

As for the rest of us, with a full vaccination rate of around one quarter of the population – we can do as we please. We are not required to wear masks in indoor public spaces, such as supermarkets; we do not have to worry about social distancing. We are just “encouraged” to be careful, and to exercise “personal responsibility.” In other words, our government has basically left it up to us – something that was intimated to us some months ago now by both the Prime Minister and the Health Minister.

The current message goes something like this:

Dear Jamaicans, you are on your own now! We have tried (and succeeded only in having the second lowest vaccination rate in Latin America and the Caribbean, after Haiti)! We are now washing our hands of you (in fact, we only “encourage” you to wash your hands)! We have lost patience with you children! We can’t wait any longer to “fly di gate”! We are hoping there won’t be another outbreak, in which case we will be in trouble! But for now, let’s get back to “normal”! We must get those unvaccinated tourists (anti-vaxxers welcome) onto the island! Let’s not worry too much about those vulnerable Jamaicans – too bad! They can continue to stay home! Go out and party! Oh, but be responsible!

In the week before the restrictions were completely lifted, the Ministry of Health and Wellness issued a press release regarding the prevailing strain of the virus in Jamaica. On April 11, the Ministry announced that the only strain present in the island is the Omicron BA1 strain. I think (but am not sure) that we have the capability here in Jamaica to do the genome sequencing required to test this, but the press release referred to “samples collected between January 5 and February 12, 2022.” Isn’t that rather a long time ago now? In fact, this was already out of date when the release was issued – two months later, as Susan Goffe pointed out in her blog.

So, this begs the question: What is the situation now? Is the new strain in Jamaica? At the very same time as our Ministry’s press release went out, the Barbadian government was confirming “the presence of Omicron BA.2 sub variant in Barbados; 90% of the samples sent to CARPHA in Trinidad tested positive for the sub variant.” Hmm.

I was also puzzling over some flyers, which I just came across on the Ministry’s website. Did I miss something? Why should we steer clear of mongoose and chickens? Why do we need to cook our bacon and eggs thoroughly? This appears to be an extremely out of date page, in which case it should perhaps be removed from the website. We don’t need that kind of confusion.

As for our COVID-19 numbers, the Reuters graphics page notes (it is updated daily): “COVID-19 infections are increasing in Jamaica, with 31 new infections reported on average each day. That’s 2% of the peak — the highest daily average reported on January 15.”

On vaccinations, Reuters also reports: “During the last week reported, Jamaica averaged about 766 doses administered each day. At that rate, it will take a further 771 days to administer enough doses for another 10% of the population.”

While most of those in hospital are unvaccinated, according to this pie chart, 84 patients are isolated for COVID-19 (confirmed and suspected) in public hospitals, as of April 17. However, the latest numbers say only 10 are actually hospitalized with the virus.

Yesterday’s numbers are below, and you will notice that over the past few days the positivity rate has been creeping up. Prior to this, the number of new cases and those hospitalized had dropped dramatically and these numbers are still very low compared to earlier this year. We are close to 3,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, although many seem to have been under earlier investigation from previous months.

One has also noted that the highest recorded numbers of new cases (albeit still low) are in St. James – our so-called “tourism mecca.”

So are we in a good place right now? Can we all breathe a sigh of relief? Well, perhaps it is because we have gotten so used to the protocols over the past two years, but some of us are not so ready to throw caution to the winds, just yet. The new variant (whether it’s here or not, and we are in the dark on that) may be very contagious but “mild,” but my husband is recovering from a stroke and diabetic. He would, therefore, be considered “vulnerable,” like many others with underlying conditions and more advanced in years.

At least one financial institution has issued a statement that it will continue to enforce COVID-19 protocols for customers and staff. I am sure other firms, large and small, will follow suit.

So, we are taking no chances, personally. We will continue to wear our masks, especially indoors in public spaces, and keep our distance from people.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the numbers go after the holiday weekend’s parties. Tonight’s party in Kingston is apparently “packed.”

Let’s hope COVID-19 is firmly behind us. Fingers and toes crossed.

Dr. Denise Eldemire-Shearer receiving her COVID-19 vaccine. Despite her own tremendous efforts to have our seniors vaccinated, and numerous vaccination “blitzes,” we have to admit at this point that our strategy to vaccinate Jamaicans has failed – and not for lack of vaccines. (Photo: Joseph Wellington/Jamaica Observer)

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