'Extend curfew hours'

'Extend curfew hours'

Public health expert calls for tighter COVID-19 measures

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS
Senior staff reporter
dunkleywillisa@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, August 14, 2020

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WITH the country set to head to the polls in three weeks amid a second wave of novel coronavirus infections, public health expert Dr Peter Figueroa is urging the Government to reintroduce earlier curfew times and reduce the numbers allowed for public gatherings.

Speaking with the Jamaica Observer on Wednesday, the professor of public health, epidemiology and HIV/AIDS at The University of the West Indies in Jamaica said while plans for a September 3 poll can proceed, political parties must condition themselves to campaign virtually and avoid events at which supporters could gather and flout safety protocols and guidelines.

Dr Figueroa said unless the leaders effectively communicate the seriousness of the situation to Jamaicans and encourage full adherence to the guidelines, the country, which “started out well” in managing the initial COVID-19 cases, could find itself on a perilous downward path.

Up to Wednesday, Jamaica had recorded 1,065 COVID-19 cases with 14 deaths.

“We were doing well initially, and in monitoring the number of cases we noted that the number, each day, began to increase from the 31st of July. We are beginning to see a second wave or a resurgence in cases. The key thing is when we reopened, I think the level of preparation for reopening was inadequate and it seems as if many people interpreted this to mean that we had everything under control and that we didn't have COVID any more. Once you see an increase in cases then it is clear that with the explosion of COVID in the United States, we have been having thousands of residents returning, tourists, and we are now seeing clusters of cases in the community,” he pointed out.

“Too many people are not observing the guidelines. So, in the current context, election or no election, there needs to be more effective communication with the people and measures taken to bring to their attention that COVID is still with us. So you can't just blame the people for not following the guidelines, you have to be able to communicate with them effectively.

“This is why I have been suggesting that we need to extend the curfew hours and reduce the number of persons who are allowed to gather in any one space, especially indoors,” the public health expert stated, noting that there is widespread disregard for the current 11:00 pm curfew time.

As for the St Thomas and Clarendon communities that are currently under quarantine after a number of cases were confirmed in each, Dr Figueroa said there might be trouble up ahead for other communities.

“We must remember that the epidemic is, on average, two weeks ahead of what we can see. So what we are seeing since the 31st of July is an increase in cases. It jumped to 14 new cases, then it jumped to 30 new cases on August 6th, and remember we had Emancipation Day and Independence [Day], and a lot of people are not following the guidelines.

“We already have identified that two communities have clusters of cases, and one of those communities, I have not seen the data, but I understand that nine per cent of the persons tested in that community so far are positive. So there is local transmission, so it's important to do the contact tracing, it's important to take action now, because it's quite likely that there are other communities that are having clusters of cases that may not have come to our attention yet,” he noted.

He said while health officials have been conducting surveillance and routine testing on individuals who come to hospitals with pneumonia or flu-like illness and experienced those cases zeroing, they are beginning to see a resurgence.

“So it is clear that we have clusters of cases throughout different communities in Jamaica, and we must take action now so that we don't have those spreading to full community transmission.

“Once that happens, we would start to get more severe cases who have to be admitted to hospital. If you are not careful, the hospital becomes overloaded with patients and you would also get more severe cases that can lead to death,” the expert warned.

In the meantime, he is urging Jamaicans to wear their masks.

“We are now beginning to realise that if someone wears a mask they help to protect someone else and they help to protect themselves. You can still get infected sometimes, but if you have a mask you are less likely to get a severe illness because the dose of the infection you receive is lower. But if you don't wear a mask at all, you risk higher exposure to someone who is infected and you are likely to get a more severe illness,” he pointed out.

Dr Figueroa is also urging the authorities to utilise local level community leaders to help enforce the message of compliance.

“When we first had the cases there were some inner-city and rural areas where the local leaders took measures to ensure that the people wore masks, sanitised and washed their hands, and we need to stimulate that again.

“Because once a trusted local leader says to the people, 'We have to do this to keep the children and old people safe,' people will do it, so I think we need to work more with the grass-roots leaders,” he said.

As for the management of tourists and those entering the country from abroad, he said: “I also think that for persons coming from the United States, we should ask them to pretest and we should reinstitute more airport testing, especially from those places in the states.

“The trouble is, it seems as if the lab is still having a capacity problem because less than three per cent of adults have been tested, so we really need a situation where we could do much more testing than currently,” he insisted.

For churches, bars, places of entertainment in breach of the safety protocols implemented to curb the spread of the virus that has so far infected almost 21 million people globally and led to the deaths of just over 750,000 people, Dr Figueroa said “effective sanctions” must be applied.

He is, in the meantime, appealing for the maintenance of essential health care programmes.

“The immunisation programme and antenatal clinics are critical. If we are not careful, if the immunisation programme is not sustained and coverage improved, you run the risk of other serious outbreaks of diseases like measles, whooping cough, [and] diphtheria.

“Since we are going into a national election, it is easy to become distracted by the elections alone, but we cannot afford to be totally distracted by the elections, we have to ensure that the essential services function,” Dr Figueroa warned.


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