PLP COVID-19 Task Force, Co-Chairs Dr. Michael Darville and Dr. Melissa Evans
The PLP COVID-19 Task Force has been closely monitoring developments regarding a highly contagious mutation of the SARS 2 coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom. A UK group called NERVTAG, which studies emerging viral threats, has advised that this version of the virus, the B.1.1.7 variant, is substantially more transmissible than other strains already in circulation.
Independent of this development, a leading epidemiologist in South Africa has briefed his country on a variant called 501.v2, now thought to be responsible for a substantial portion of new infections in that country.
In both cases, clinical findings indicate these newly discovered mutations are more contagious but no more virulent that the other mutated strains of the SARS 2 coronavirus genetically sequenced to date. This means that while the virus spreads more easily, the current understanding is that they do not cause more severe symptoms or health outcomes. However, the danger of a virus spreading in exponential fashion should be taken very seriously.
The B.1.1.7 variant has now been identified in the United States and in dozens of other countries. Given that a significant portion of our visitors come from the United States, and that there is robust travel of Bahamians to and from the United States, the government of The Bahamas must move quickly to protect our country from a third wave that could bring great suffering.
Over the last few days many countries have moved aggressively to put in place stricter health protocols in an attempt to prevent this third wave and the negative impact further lockdowns would have on their already hurting economies.
Last month, our government passed one of many resolutions extending the COVID-19 Emergency Orders. Yet no plans have been discussed or laid in Parliament by the Competent Authority to address our county’s mortality rate and a possible third wave of COVID-19. We are in a race against time.
Vaccinations will be critical to fighting COVID, but all indications are that the Ministry of Health is months away from inoculating Bahamians. In the meantime, we see small island states like the Cayman Islands opting not to wait for supplies through PAHO and instead sourcing approved vaccines from other reliable sources; they have announced their intention to roll out their COVID-19 immunization plan in a matter of weeks.
We are once again calling on the government to adopt more proactive and transparent COVID- 19 policies to protect Bahamians and visitors alike.
We make the following recommendations to help save lives, reduce the strain on our health care system, and prevent further damage to our economy:
1.The Competent Authority must immediately consult with the scientific, medical and business communities on next steps to meet this threat and make those consultations transparent.
2. The Competent Authority and the Ministry of Tourism should implement any adjustments necessary to visitor protocols to reduce likelihood of importing new COVID-19 cases.
3. There is an urgent need to ensure that our clinics and hospitals, including PMH and Rand Memorial, have a plan to isolate any new influx of infectious cases.
4. The government should evaluate the benefits of rapid testing at ports of entry in light of the now widespread circulation of this more transmissible COVID strain. Catching some cases that would otherwise be undetected or detected only days later could stop exponential spread in The Bahamas.
5. While waiting on PAHO to source a steady supply of the COVID 19 vaccines, The Bahamas should access other credible medical supply chains in order to get FDA-approved vaccines and begin immediate immunization of frontline workers.
6. To reduce our country’s high COVID-19 mortality rate, the Ministry of Health must source the most effective COVID-19 medications used in critical care units around the world and make them available to Bahamians.
7. The government must seek more input and involvement from the Bahamas Medical Council.
8. The government must put in place ongoing training for healthcare workers and uniformed branches, including in the Family Islands, regarding the detection and subsequent management of cases that have been identified.
9. The government should partner with the private sector to provide free high-quality masks to those who need them.
10. Public education efforts to date have been weak to non-existent. The government should undertake a public education campaign to emphasize the need for increased vigilance at this time. We likely need to be stricter – spend less time indoors, use better masks, emphasize ventilation, increase disinfection of high-touch surfaces – in order to protect ourselves from this new strain.