Virus alert Jamaica says all in place as WHO declares global emergency

Health authorities say the country is prepared, should the feared coronavirus reach the island, as concerns heighten among Jamaicans about the disease which, as of yesterday, had killed 213 people and infected 7,818. Almost overnight, another 1,753 more cases of the deadly coronavirus were confirmed since Wednesday, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) which yesterday declared the outbreak a global public health emergency and expressed concern that it could spread to countries with weaker health systems.
The majority of the cases — 7,736 — are reported in mainland China, and there are another 12,167 suspected cases — 1,370 of them severe. Infection has been reported in 18 countries outside of China.
Given inefficiencies in the local health system, concerns were heightened here on Tuesday when word spread that there was a suspected case of the virus at University Hospital of the West Indies, but those reports were dismissed by hospital administrators as well as Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.
Yesterday, he told the Jamaica Observer, after a tour of isolation facilities at National Chest Hospital (NCH) and Normal Manley International Airport (NMIA), that he is confident that Jamaica can handle the situation.
Dr Tufton pointed out that the two-bed facility at the NCH is equipped and ready for airflow management, monitoring with cameras, appropriately outfitted bathrooms, waste disposal systems, storage facility, masks, and gloves, among other implements.
He said he is equally impressed with the isolation facilities at the NMIA.
“This talk that we don’t have any isolation space at the airport is very faulty. There is a fully equipped purpose-built isolation area, with all amenities as a hospital. It is approved at WHO level,” he said, noting that the airport is also outfitted with large and hand-held thermal scanners.
The health minister insisted that Jamaica is at no disadvantage to face the coronavirus, which is believed to have emerged in China in a market that sold wild game, and spread during the Lunar New Year holiday season.
“The conclusion from my perspective is that Jamaica is at no disadvantage in terms of infrastructure, personnel, and screening mechanisms to assess persons coming in. The challenge is to ensure that we assess without any major inconvenience, and track based on information from immigration,” he said.
The WHO has cautioned that although exported cases of coronavirus have been detected through entry screening implemented by some countries, this may miss travellers incubating the disease.
“The truth is that if someone is in incubation period, there is nothing practical you can do except to give them appropriate advice and information,” Dr Tufton admitted. He emphasised that Jamaica is equipped to perform all the precautionary measures that other countries are undertaking at this time.
“We are in a heightened state of alert in terms of questioning, identifying, and isolating persons. We have the infrastructure and the information,” he said, while pointing out that a part of the responsibility lies with individuals to ensure their own safety.
“Their lives depend on it. I don’t think anything else is done (at ports of entry) in other countries. If someone is coming from China we could actually quarantine that person for a while,” he said.
He also responded to concerns expressed by Nurses Association of Jamaica President Carmen Johnson that there aren’t enough nurses at the island’s airports to handle this heightened state of alert.
“I appreciate the concerns of the nurses association, but my visit to the airports today tells me that there are far more equipment and facilities there than was the impression that was given. I was very encouraged. Our infrastructure and personnel have done a good job in the past so we have no reason to believe we are at a disadvantage,” he said, noting that numbers will be beefed up if necessary.
Dr Tufton emphasised that this is not the first time Jamaica would be dealing with a contagious virus, and has done so capably in the past. “This is not the first one. So I am comfortable that we are putting everything in place,” he said.
With the health system potentially under additional strain, most of the island’s health inspectors staged a sick-out yesterday over wages.
The Jamaica Association of Public Health Inspectors (JAPHI) said 95 per cent of the country’s 500 public health inspectors (PHIs) had called in sick.
“It is believed that PHIs may be exhausted from the extensive work they routinely perform. We are also aware that there may be high levels of stress and demotivation by work- and wage-related matters. The association is very concerned about the health and welfare of the PHIs in Jamaica and ask that the issues be addressed speedily so that PHIs can resume good health and, by extension, perform the public health work,” JAPHI said.
Critical services across the island are affected, including monitoring of ports of entries, vector control activities, disease investigation, meat inspection, water quality monitoring, food inspections handlers clinics, inspection of food, inspection of institutions, and building plan investigations.
JAPHI said the finance ministry has not been responsive to its attempts to negotiate.
Meanwhile, the WHO has recommended that the interim name for the virus should be changed to “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease” in compliance with the WHO best practices for naming of new human infectious diseases.

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