By Gemma Handy
The next three weeks will be “crucial” in the fight against coronavirus – and will likely see the country’s first known cases of local person-to-person transmission.
That was the stark warning from Health Minister Molwyn Joseph at a press conference yesterday, during which he revealed the number of confirmed cases in Antigua and Barbuda had now reached three. All are imported by people travelling in from the UK and US.
And the minister’s warning regarding pressure on the nation’s health service was clear.
“Every country’s health care system has been seriously challenged, sometimes overwhelmed,” he said as he once again urged the public to take thorough precautions to protect themselves and others.
“This is a global crisis, this is a pandemic, this is going to impact every human being on this planet,” Joseph said.
“It is a serious matter – not life or death in the sense that if you get COVID you will die – but we have a challenge and we have to face it head on.”
He appealed to people to “take time out to build immune systems”, along with ensuring frequent and thorough hand washing with soap and water, using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, and keeping a distance of a few feet between people.
A day after a ban was announced on public gatherings of more than 25 people, the minister was asked about the possibility of total closures of bars and restaurants.
That remains a possibility in the event there is “a lot of local transmission”, he said.
Meanwhile the long-awaited completion of the Margetson Ward – currently being repurposed to act as a quarantine and isolation facility – is suffering ongoing delays.
Due to open last weekend, the latest estimate is this Friday.
“Finishing touches” are underway, Minister Joseph said, explaining the requirement for the centre to have “negative pressure” to ensure the virus cannot escape an isolation room.
“Increased surveillance” remains in place at the country’s air and sea ports, and work is ongoing with international public health agency PAHO to enable virus samples to be tested on island, rather than being flown to Trinidad.
Minister Joseph said the government “deeply appreciated” the addition of 31 doctors and nurses from Cuba, due to arrive on Thursday. That brings the total of Cuban medics in the country to almost 100.
Cuban ambassador Maria Cabreja told the press conference the move was in sync with efforts to keep former Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s “legacy alive”.
“We received a request from the Antigua and Barbuda government … As usual, Cuba answered very, very fast,” she said.
Cuba has been quick to respond to pleas for help from around the region. It is also currently assisting in Italy where the number of virus-related deaths now tops 6,000.
Cabreja said Cuba was “very pleased” to help Antigua and Barbuda.
“The only thing we are asking for is protection,” she added. “It’s very important we work closely to continue to protect Cuban and Antiguan workers so we can keep on protecting the Antigua and Barbuda public.”
The incoming medics are specialists in managing infectious diseases. Some have assisted in Africa with the fight against Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses the world has ever seen.
They will be assigned to help virus-screening teams at the airport and seaport, and boost numbers at Mount St John’s Medical Centre and the Margetson Ward.