ON December 31, 2019, Chinese authorities led an epidemiological investigation to determine the etiology of reported cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. This led to the discovery of a new strain of Corona Virus Disease COVID-19.
COVID-19 is a Corona Virus characterized with fever, cough and chills. About 80-81% of cases are mild, 14% severe and 4% critical. The fatality rate ranges from 2.1% to 2.9%. The majority of cases which complicate have comorbid conditions which include renal disease, heart failure, lung disease and cancer.
This has since resulted in the World Health Organization Director-General under the International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005) regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 in the People’s Republic of China, as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Thursday January 30, 2020.
As of March 8, 2020 there has been a total of 105, 586 confirmed cases globally. A total of 24,727 confirmed cases have been noted outside of China in 101 countries. This has resulted in 3,584 deaths to date (3,100 in China and 484 outside of China).
There has been confirmation of COVID-19 cases in several countries of the Caribbean including the Dominican Republic (1), Saint Martin (2), Saint Barthelemy (1), (5) cases were confirmed in French Guiana twenty minutes away at the border crossing with Suriname and most recently, Martinique (2).
The WHO advised all countries to ensure preparation for containment, as they expect further international exportation of cases. Due to the increasing spread of the virus the risk to our region has been escalated from low to medium, and now to high.
As such, the Department of Health and Wellness urgently commenced preparations, to sensitize key stakeholders and the public and ensure early detection and efficient management of COVID-19 in Saint Lucia. In an effort to reduce morbidity and mortality due to COVID-19, surveillance systems are being strengthened, and processes to facilitate early identification and effective management of cases in Saint Lucia, were put in place.
In an effort to reduce importation of cases, travel restrictions have been placed on persons who visited Mainland China in the last 14 days from Tuesday February 4, 2020. These restrictions were extended on February 26, 2020 to include Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy and Singapore. Non- essential travel to these areas have been discouraged.
The Department of Health and Wellness receives regional support to guide preparedness plans. We are also in regular consultations with PAHO/WHO, Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and CDC, including regular reviews of the regional and international guidelines. CARICOM has been facilitating forums to discuss urgent concerns among heads of state. The Chief Medical Officers, National Epidemiologists, Laboratory Directors and other Health care workers attend regular virtual meetings.
On a local level, the National Health Security Committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary has been activated from January, 2020 and meets weekly to discuss progress in preparation and to address gaps in our systems and processes. The Hon. Prime Minister activated NEMAC on Friday February 28, 2020 to raise the alert and level of preparedness. The National COVID-19 Plans have been finalized including the Risk communication plan. Protocols have been adapted and shared with the relevant sectors.
On Sunday March 1, 2020, the Prime Minister Hon. Allen Chastanet with the Chief Medical Officer- Dr. Sharon Belmar- George and Chief Environmental Health Officer- Mr. Parker Ragnanan attended the Special Meeting of CARICOM in Barbados, which was convened to discuss the threat of COVID-19 to the region.
I wish to take this opportunity to pause here and to remind everyone that we must not politicize Health Care. We must be careful what we post on social media and what we accept as truth. We must only deal with the facts and the truth, so as not to create unnecessary panic among our people. Coronavirus is a serious concern, and when we act, we must ensure that we are doing so based on fact and in the best interest of the protection of our people. Having said this, I take this opportunity to commend the Hon Shawn Edward on the statements he made expressing sentiments to the effect that we may be the best prepared in the region and the work that has been done by the Ministry of Health is unsurpass in terms of our level of preparedness.
Surveillance at high risk institutions has been strengthened, this includes the ports of entry, the hotel and tourism sector, public and private health care facilities. Quarantine capacity has been organized with contact tracing as needed. To date, nine persons have undergone home quarantine with regular monitoring, three persons under guest house quarantine, two persons under hospital isolation.
Health care facility preparation is ongoing. Healthcare workers are continuously trained, and medical protocol including infection prevention and Control, as well as Clinical treatment guidelines have been shared with all institutions. Isolation and quarantine facilities have been identified, medication and equipment has been procured to manage the expected increases in respiratory cases. A referral plan has been organized to facilitate treatment at one isolation unit. Presently, CARPHA provides diagnostic capacity for COVID-19. This takes between 4-24 hours to get results. The equipment to facilitate testing for COVID-19 has been procured and shipped and the seven day training for the laboratory staff is scheduled to commence with the arrival of the equipment. The present capacity of the hospital isolation unit is 15 beds.
Sensitization of Non-Health care workers is ongoing. This includes, but not limited to Ministry of Education, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Tourism, Tourism Authority, St. Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association, St. Lucia Air and Sea Port Authority, Chamber of Commerce, Police, the transportation sector including mini-bus operators and Taxi Association.
The Port Health services have been enhanced. Assessments have been done at all port facilities for the core capacities. Public Health training for border control officers has been done at all ports. The screening and surveillance of incoming passengers has also been enhanced. The collaboration between other agencies including Customs, Immigration and vessel agents has allowed information sharing and timely decision making. Personal Protective Equipment has been provided to border control agencies. Appropriate technologies have been employed to enhance surveillance of incoming passengers to Saint Lucia. Increased human resources are employed at ports of entry to facilitate port health coverage. Additional measures have been implemented for leisure vessels including the submission of Maritime Declaration of Health.
A communication plan has been developed. This prioritises awareness building and education on COVID-19 to reduce myths, misconceptions and miscommunication on the virus. The plan promotes health behaviours that reduce risk of exposure and infection, and provides status updates on preparedness of stakeholders and agencies engaged in the national COVID-19 response.
Extensive planning costing in excess of one million dollars, is ongoing to prepare for the possibility of the introduction of cases and in –country transmission. This includes, but is not limited to the setup of community respiratory clinics at 5 specific locations for ambulatory care, and the expedited move of the Victoria Hospital to the OKEU hospital, to facilitate the transformation of Victoria Hospital to a Respiratory Hospital. The implementation of COVID-19 treatment teams for care is also being organized.
The Department of Health and Wellness, with the support received through the approved budget by the Ministry of Finance will continue strengthening our systems to ensure enhanced capacity to manage this global threat. The population is reminded to continue working with us, by practising the necessary infection prevention and control measures recommended by the health teams.
As the world is fighting the COVID-19 Coronavirus originated from Wuhan, China, the Government of Saint Lucia wish to take this opportunity to commend Taiwan for its efficient and efficacious measures, and its offer to work closely with Saint Lucia to contain the pandemic. The Ambassador of Taiwan to St. Lucia has extended his governments assistance to us, in their efforts to assist St. Lucia as much as possible in the fight against this virus. We also urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to honour its commitment to fully involve Taiwan in all of WHO’s relevant consultations, clinical networks and allow Taiwan to be fully engaged and fully aware of all the developments.
As I conclude Mr. Speaker, I wish to thank you and the members of this Honourable House for giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Ministry of Health and Wellness, to give an update on our level of preparedness to combat the Coronavirus.
I THANK YOU