By Gemma Handy
Locating 20 of the 39 people in the country yesterday confirmed as testing positive for Covid-19 was a “challenge”, health chiefs admitted last night.
While 19 were already in government quarantine facilities having arrived on last Friday’s repatriation flight from the Dominican Republic, the remainder were spread out across Antigua.
“We weren’t sure where they all were,” Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas told a virtual press conference. “They were in quarantine in various locations; some at home, some in hotels.”
That will do little to assuage concerns among the public about the risk of community spread of the highly contagious coronavirus from travellers coming into the country since borders reopened this month.
The CMO conceded that there was “always concern” about how scrupulously people entrusted to self-quarantine adhered to the rules.
“We have been following up and where people have not been compliant we have been taking measures to mitigate that,” she said.
The latest batch of confirmed virus cases more than doubles the total number previously recorded for the nation, taking the current count to 65.
It’s something of an embarrassment for the government coming just two days after Health Minister Molwyn Joseph declared the country to be “essentially Covid-free”.
Last night Joseph sought to clarify that, acknowledging that some tests were pending when he made the declaration on state television, but adding “there was no case of anyone exhibiting symptoms in Antigua at the time”.
All 39 people with the virus are now “in quarantine or isolation”, the CMO said.
While many are returning nationals, figures for precisely how many cases were from tourists were not forthcoming.
“That’s difficult because you have some nationals who are tourists,” Dr Sealey-Thomas said. “A lot of persons have many passports; they may be a national but come in as a tourist.”
The ratio is pertinent because while all returning citizens have been forced to quarantine, vacationers have only been required to do so should they test positive.
The government has been battling the thorny task of keeping crucial tourist dollars flowing into the country while protecting the health of its people.
Last night, officials also admitted that less than half of the more than 1,000 people to have landed in Antigua and Barbuda since borders reopened on June 1 have been tested for Covid-19.
The CMO said an additional “30 to 40” tests remained pending with results due today.
Still, another national lockdown looks unlikely – at least for the time being.
“The Cabinet has looked at where we are and is satisfied that our protocols and the mechanisms we have in place are sufficient for us to continue to maintain our current position,” Information Minister Melford Nicholas said.
“We have no intention to move towards another lockdown.”
That position was echoed by the Minister of Health who said “we do not have community spread and it has been that way for some time”.
“We are monitoring the situation,” he continued. “When Cabinet makes the decision for a lockdown it is based on a thorough evaluation … and as it is now we do not see a threat to the local population.”
Neither will commercial flights originating from virus hotspots be restricted. That includes the American Airlines route from Miami, despite a surge in Covid-19 cases in Florida this week.
“We did discuss that today and it is unlikely we will put any restriction on the flight coming from Miami,” Nicholas told the briefing.
He said current systems of “filtration” of virus cases were “working”.
“We are certainly going to encourage persons booking vacations to Antigua to undertake tests before they arrive,” he added.
Plans to bolster current mechanisms in place include mandatory testing and quarantine for every single person arriving in the country as standard, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said in a statement preceding the press conference.
He said the country was facing a “double threat of extraordinary magnitude” due to Covid-19 and its subsequent economic blow.
Browne urged everyone to “play their part” in keeping the country safe by wearing facemasks, physical distancing and following good hygiene standards.
“Each Antiguan and Barbudan should exercise a heightened level of vigilance and personal responsibility to avoid local transmission from these imported cases that will occur, from time to time,” Browne said, adding, “These battles we face can be won.”