Christmas COVID warning in Jamaica

There are indications that the country could be seeing the beginnings of an upward shift in COVID-19 numbers, at least at private labs, as Jamaicans settle into enjoying the recently relaxed restrictions, while being warned not to take the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus lightly.

At least one case of the variant has been confirmed in a short-term British traveller to the island, and Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton says he believes there are other cases here.

Breaking the news yesterday, he noted that of the 1,100 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that were done in the last 36 hours at private facilities, an unusually high number were positive.

The 76 positives were mainly short-term travellers to Jamaica, who required PCR tests for their return flights home.

“What we are seeing is that we are picking up quite a lot more positives. These 76 represent one of the largest reporting of imported cases in the country since the start of the pandemic. Omicron is spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. The evidence is clear on that, anyone with Omricon infection can spread the virus by an infection rate of some 2.5, so its highly contagious,” Dr Tufton stated.

He stressed that there are now sufficient indicators to confirm that the country should be on alert for the possibility of this highly contagious variant strain of the novel coronavirus being in the population, quickly moving from one person to the next.

Dr Tufton said, given the advisory from the United Kingdom of the traveller who tested positive for Omicron, it is reasonable to conclude that the person may have either caught the virus here, or passed it on to others in the population.

“In other words, I think it is best from a precautionary perspective to conclude that Omicron is here in our population,” he said.

The intent, he added, is not to raise unnecessary alarm, but to put Jamaicans on guard, particularly during this period of heightened activity.

“We did say that we do expect that the variant strain would be here very soon, so it should not be surprising that we have discovered at least one case, and I do believe there are other cases,” he noted.

The health minister said his worst fear is that, with the relaxation of COVID-19 restriction measures, some Jamaicans will throw caution to the wind during the holidays, resulting in rapid spread of the virus.

“No matter what we do, the fact is if Jamaicans decide that they will not observe [safety protocols], even with the messaging, then it poses a risk to them, to us, and to the health system, because the consequence of complacency is likely the possibility of overwhelming the public health system. So my worst fears would be complacency, and complacency leading to the overwhelming of the public health system, which means people will die,” Dr Tufton stated.

At the same time, the health minister pointed out that Omicron is becoming the dominant strain in many countries, and is expected to become the case here.

“It is highly transmissible and can move from one person to the next very quickly and a lot easier than previous strains. We should not become complacent in terms of the perceived mildness of the strain. Yes, there are experts who have said the likelihood of hospitalisation is less, and I know there is some comfort in that, but complacency could be a false sense of security,” he emphasised.

Given Jamaica’s low vaccination rates, the more people who get the virus, the greater the likelihood of hospitalisation, particularly among vulnerable groups, he warned.

The ministry is projecting that up to 2,000 people could be hospitalised in an Omicron-aggravated fourth wave of COVID-19, and is preparing for it, Dr Tufton said. Approximately 1,200 beds will be available for COVID cases; personal protective equipment requirements are being reviewed; the employment of more than 1,300 temporary personnel is being extended to the end of the first quarter of 2022; and health teams are being deployed in remote communities to ramp up vaccination, which is now at just over 20 per cent of the population.

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