Ministry of Health to unveil guidance note on ‘safe zones’, even as ‘Delta surge’ drags on

Holding firm to its policy of not mandating the COVID-19 vaccine despite an unprecedented spike in deaths and spread of the disease, the Government Monday night declared it’s turning to “safe zones” in public hospitals and care centres.

Declaring that lockdowns won’t work either, Prime Minister Mia Mottley told the country during a virtual press conference that the administration had reached a stage where it had to ensure that it protected those who are taking the vaccine.

Mottley suggested the safe zones balanced the Government’s duty of care to all citizens with creating a safe place for the majority of eligible people who have already taken the jab.

“The reality is that we are satisfied that we need now at this stage to start the process of the creation of safe zones. And what do we mean by safe zones? That we need to be able to have places where persons are either vaccinated or recently tested,” she said.

The Prime Minister said the Ministry of Health will shortly be providing guidance notes on the safe zones.

She said: “The Ministry of Health will therefore feed us with a series of bitesize chunks; and why?  Because we have limited capacity as a small state. I would love to tell you we can do the guidance notes for every area and every sector [at] one time. But if we want to do what we are doing well, while at the same time managing the home isolation and the home quarantine programme, then we are going to do it in ways that are manageable and sustainable.”

The Prime Minister disclosed that the zones will start operating in the coming weeks among the most vulnerable in the society such as the elderly.

“And what is the area of greatest concern to the government? People who can least protect themselves. Our elderly persons in institutions, be there nursing homes, geriatric hospitals, the hospitals; or those who for example are living at home depending on care-givers or people who are genuinely sick in hospitals and clinics,” she revealed.

“Those guidance notes which the Ministry of Health will issue very shortly will make one fundamental point for us, straight off. That we will be testing persons based on risk. And what do they consider as high-risk areas?  Intensive care unit, be it the medical intensive care unit,[or]the surgical intensive care unit. Accident and Emergency, urgent care facilities, the 24-hour urgent care that we have in the polyclinics, the isolation facilities where the doctors and nurses and other staff [work]. They are at risk because the person in isolation is already positive.”

The Prime Minister also said swabbing centres and out-patient clinics will be among the safe zones.

Mottley said: “The Ministry of Health has indicated that those are the high-risk areas and therefore when you see the guidance notes come out later this week, it is anticipated that unvaccinated persons, for example, in these high-risk areas will have to be tested at least once a week in order to ensure that we are taking care of those we have to take care of.  The truth is, the people who are vaccinated will have a less frequent regime.”

She reasoned that vaccinated people are less likely to catch the virus, and that even if they caught it, they are less likely to be contagious because it is not going to stay with them long.

“And if they catch it, they are less likely to be serious, in which case their period of time ill is going to be much shorter as health care workers than if they were unvaccinated,” the Prime Minister added.

She said once the first safe zone exercise is completed for all healthcare workers, healthcare institutions will be next in line with some special exceptions. “We accept that certain departments are not as exposed or not as high risk as others and therefore there would be different times for them.

She declared: “With respect to persons who work with caregivers, we suggest to you that you ask them also to regularly test especially where that caregiver is taking care of an elderly person home at you.

“If you are not going to mandate vaccines then you have to mandate a safe environment. And that is what this government is doing.  And in a safe environment, we are mandating vaccination or recent tests and regular tests based on the level that has been recommended to us. I believe PAHO sent in a virologist who has also worked with the Ministry of Health to help guide us on this.”

Asked about the readiness of the digital vaccine certificates that could be used in the safe zones, Mottley referred the issue to Minister of Health Lt Col Jeffrey Bostic who said the process is progressing apace.

“The process is ongoing,” he said. “The team is now about 60 persons who are actually dealing with this right now. Initially, certificates were being distributed, but we came up with a better certificate from a security perspective, one that could not be easily reproduced; and one that could facilitate travel using the barcode and safety feature which we now added to the certificate.”

Prime Minister Mottley said that after health authorities have finished the healthcare workers safe zone, she expects another guidance note would be issued soon thereafter for frontline workers and also for tourism and hospitality workers.

After that, she added, the programme would deal with those workers within the education system.  She sought to make clear that this is not an exhaustive list.

The Prime Minister promised that the Government would pay for the tests and the vaccines in public institutions with respect to the safe zones, but that the management in private enterprises would have to make their own arrangements with staff on the question of pay.

The government is also intent on creating safe zones for patrons.

She said she will take a more active role in ensuring that government meets with the business community and the labour movement to see how this can be achieved.

The Prime Minister said consideration is also being given to including places of worship and entertainment as safe zones and looks forward to meeting with leaders of the Barbados Christian Council (BXC) and the Barbados Evangelical Association (BEA) and those in entertainment to discuss the matter.

She also promised that the safe zones would be ready to start in the hotel and tourism industry by December 1 in time for the start of the winter tourist season.

The mobile pop-up community vaccination team is to be resuscitated to be able to take care of people who are fearful of leaving their homes.

Mottley said that as a result, Dr Hilary Moore will lead the team with private doctors predominantly.

She pointed out that separate from the community pop-up clinics, the time had come to repeat Operation Seek-and-Save by going to the houses of people who are over 70 years of age and are either incapable or uncomfortable with moving.

To serve those who have chronic non-communicable diseases, who are out-patients of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) or patients of the polyclinic system, she said the Government will also put in place, separate from the mobile team, people who will be calling these persons and where the householders have not heard anyone, a special line is being set up to call out.

Special lines are also being put in place at three clinics: The Alexandra School in St Peter, Princess Margaret Secondary School in St Philip and Eunice Gibson Polyclinic in Warrens, St Michael.

The lines will be for those over age 70 and those suffering from chronic NCDs, heart problems, serious diabetics, or are outpatients.

The Prime Minister urged hospital personnel to meet one-on-one with the Government to discuss the safe zones so people could get a better understanding as why they would want to put themselves at risk in that they would be dealing with people who may be exposed to the virus.

She said the safe zones option was based on the fact that the country had now almost 60 per cent of eligible Barbadians vaccinated.

“When we get to the high numbers of 70 per cent of persons who are eligible, then we will start to look at adjustments with further hours of restrictions and movement,” the Prime Minister pointed out.