By Gemma Handy
The country’s first coronavirus patient is said to be recovering well as health chiefs continue to monitor her and those she came into contact with prior to diagnosis.
The unnamed 21-year-old woman arrived in Antigua on a British Airways plane on March 10 and began showing symptoms of the illness a day later.
“We continue to monitor her; we are very pleased with her progress so far,” Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas told a press conference on Tuesday.
The patient’s close contacts will remain under scrutiny for another two weeks as officials battle on to prevent the virus spreading. That includes regular temperature checks and monitoring for signs of fever, sore throat, cough and difficulty breathing.
Six people were in quarantine in Antigua and Barbuda up to press time last night.
Meanwhile, workers race against the clock to complete the repurposing of the Margetson Ward at the former Holberton Hospital which has been beset by delays.
Health Minister Molwyn Joseph said the facility – which will have five isolation rooms – would officially open by the weekend.
Twenty ventilators are on order to allow patients experiencing breathing problems to receive oxygen. They are due to arrive on island within a fortnight.
Tuesday’s press conference came during a two-day visit by officials from international public health agency PAHO.
Their task is to help curtail the spread of the virus and provide guidance on everything from surveillance of facilities to laboratory processes.
Technical advisor Dr Valeska Stempliuk said the Margetson Ward was well on the way to completion and was well stocked with vital equipment.
She predicted around five percent of coronavirus patients would be “critical” and in need of intensive care while the vast majority will not require hospitalisation.
PAHO’s Mark Kortepeter, an infectious disease physician, said the COVID-19 virus had triggered the most intense public response he had witnessed in a 30-year career.
“I have dealt with a number of different crises and the disease I compare this most to is Ebola,” he told Observer.
“We did see some of these measures such as closing of schools in 2009 during the H1N1 [flu] pandemic but this is far greater in terms of what’s being done.
“The reason is that it’s something that’s novel, so there is no immunity in the population. Even with a new strain of influenza there is still some residual immunity in the population and there are also treatments and vaccines that we can apply.
“This is something brand new, we have no treatments, no vaccines, and we have to take it far more seriously,” he said.
Dr Kortepeter warned “all bets are off” regarding a timeframe for the illness to peak and dissipate.
“Predictions are impossible,” he said. “We are seeing a rise in cases just today, with probably the most cases in a single day in Singapore reported.”
He said a common myth was that the virus was similar to flu.
“That’s something we hear commonly. It certainly spreads very efficiently like the flu. But as far as we can tell it does appear to have a very targeted higher risk for death and severe diseases in certain populations which is why it needs to be taken very seriously.”
Increased surveillance at the country’s ports of entry is also now in place. Minister Joseph announced all passengers arriving into VC Bird International Airport would have their temperature taken as standard. Extra nurses are being stationed there to help. Airlines are also being told not to allow anyone showing symptoms of the virus to board a plane to Antigua.