CARICOM Ministers of Health will link up via Skype tomorrow to discuss the potential public health threat posed to the region by the novel coronavirus (nCoV).
Barbados’ Minister of Health and Wellness, Lt Col Jeffrey Bostic, expects that by the end of that meeting, a unified regional response to the global health emergency will emerge.
The nCoV, which was first identified in Wuhan, China in December last year, is highly infectious and has now spread to 20 countries outside of China, infecting more than 14,000 people globally. The death toll so far is estimated at 230.
Minister Bostic was speaking on Saturday at a meeting he chaired, which brought together civil servants from across the public health sector to determine Barbados’ readiness to respond to the emergency and to put in train measures to beef up the sector, with particular emphasis on heightened surveillance at the ports of entry.
Declaring that it could not be “business as usual”, Minister Bostic warned that the threat went beyond public health with the potential to impact other sectors of the economy such as tourism, trade, homeland security and foreign relations.
As a consequence, he said, the response of Government was a holistic one with regular discussions taking place across Ministries and ultimately at the level of the Cabinet of Barbados.
Acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr Kenneth George, reported that in addition to the cross-border spread of the virus, there were now reports of in-country transmission (person to person) in some countries, outside of the epicenter.
He said that Barbados had moved quickly to strengthen surveillance at its airport and seaport and had taken steps to pay overtime, in order to have staff in place after normal shifts in order to meet “red-eye flights”.
Explaining that the first line of contact for persons entering Barbados was the environmental health officers and public health nurses, he disclosed that there were 20 environmental health officers and six public health nurses based at the ports of entry.
The Ministry of Health and Wellness has increased its public health messaging at the airport, with new signs in place instructing passengers on the steps they must take if they had visited China before arriving in Barbados.
The questions which arriving passengers must answer at the kiosks have also been updated, Dr. George revealed, and the Immigration Department has been put on “a higher sense of alertness”, manually going through passports to see where persons visited in the previous 14 to 21 days.
The Chief Medical Officer said there were protocols in place at the ports to deal with persons arriving from the affected regions who were asymptomatic (showing no symptoms) as well as those who were ill.
He indicated that environmental health officers boarded all arriving aircraft and scrutinized the health declaration forms. Any ill passengers who met the case definition would be flagged along with those passengers sitting in the immediate vicinity, that is, next to, in front of and behind the ill passenger.
“If a person is asymptomatic but has been in the high risk area, they are being allowed entry into Barbados and those persons are being monitored by the relevant polyclinics throughout the next 14 days.
“In the event of illness, these persons will be transported from the port of entry to the Infectious Disease Unit at Enmore,” he stated, adding that simulations would take place in the coming days to make sure that these transfers occur seamlessly. The Barbados Ambulance Service is fully equipped and protective measures for workers are in place to ensure the safe transfers of patients, the CMO added.
Meanwhile, training and sensitization of frontline workers at the ports continue. Dr George explained that hand washing and good respiratory hygiene were fundamental to prevent the transmission of virus so a directive had been given for adequate hand sanitizers to be in place at the ports of entry for all frontline staff.