By Orville Williams
The seemingly lax approach being taken in the US toward issues such as vaccinations and mask-wearing in the fight against Covid-19 is simply not acceptable, in light of repercussions for Antigua and Barbuda and the rest of the Caribbean.
That’s the view of Antigua and Barbuda’s former chief health inspector, Lionel Michael, who currently serves as Chief Environmental Health Officer in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
Starting July 1, the US state of Florida – the departure point for several major cruises that frequent the Caribbean – will be outlawing the recent norm of businesses requesting proof of vaccinations from their customers.
Cruise operators are included in that new directive, according to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, meaning cruise vessels due to visit the country from July could be transporting unvaccinated visitors to the island.
The Antigua and Barbuda government is already looking to mitigate the risk of increased infections as a result, with more vaccinations within the local tourism sector being just one of the measures to be discussed with health and tourism officials.
Speaking on Observer AM yesterday, Michael dismissed the statements from DeSantis regarding vaccinations and questioned why Antigua and Barbuda was even considering allowing unvaccinated passengers within its borders.
“I am hesitating to comment on the governor of Florida, because the United States does their own thing. I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the things they do and a lot of the things that CDC does – like putting Antigua in all kinds of funny [Covid-19 risk] zones – I mean, who do they think they are?
“I have not been in any discussions concerning cruise ships coming to the Caribbean [and] coming to the BVI, in which [the cruise operators] did not say they’re going to bring all vaccinated passengers and crew. I was surprised to hear that that was being discussed in Antigua.
“I’m a little concerned [about that] …how can you bring unvaccinated people and vaccinated people together on the same ship? How can we expect to go back to March 2020, when people were not vaccinated and you had outbreaks of Covid on cruise ships?”
Michael noted that, unlike Caribbean countries that are largely guided by the International Health Regulations (IHR) under the World Health Organization (WHO), protocols in the US tend to be guided by that country’s own federal agencies, like the CDC.
With that in mind, he encouraged countries like Antigua and Barbuda to work with the guidance of the local and regional authorities, rather than considering external advice.
“We have our own guidelines in the Caribbean, we have our own ‘CDC’ called [the Caribbean Public Health Agency] CARPHA and we have our own ministries of health. We set our standards, we set our requirements and from what I know, the ships are trying to respect our standards because they want to come to the Caribbean.
“CARPHA has set guidelines for cruise ships to return and that is a big issue within those guidelines. Those guidelines speak to vaccinated passengers, vaccinated crew and [insist] that anybody on board the ships within a certain age group should be vaccinated,” he said.
Michael also commented on the new directive in the US that allows vaccinated persons to traverse public spaces without a face mask.
Since the CDC said “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a face mask or stay six feet away from others in most settings, whether outdoors or indoors” back in May, images out of the US have shown hundreds and sometimes thousands of persons gathered maskless at events like football games and parades.
The former chief health inspector insisted, though, that those freedoms will not be given to cruise visitors in the BVI.
“One of the things [the cruise operators] mentioned in the discussions was the whole question of wearing masks in accordance with CDC guidelines. We said ‘no, this is our standard here…when your guests come, they have to [adhere to] these guidelines’, and there were no issues.”
Contrastingly, however, Michael believes the protocols for mask-wearing here in Antigua and Barbuda could be relaxed somewhat.
Under the current guidelines, persons must wear a face mask while in public, except when exercising or engaged in certain sporting activities. He believes, though, that residents could be allowed to move about in public areas without a mask if they are alone and not in close proximity to others.
“I don’t have a problem with [mask-wearing in] markets, stores and so on, but I have a problem if you tell me I should wear a mask on any street, especially in open-air settings and where people are six feet apart.
“I have some challenges with that statement and I think that needs to be looked at. I can understand people walking in town where a lot of people are always crowding and so on, but when people get out of that kind of environment and in an open space by themselves, I don’t see why they should be wearing masks.”
Antigua and Barbuda is set to welcome the first passenger-laden cruise vessel in more than a year in late July, while the government has insisted that, considering the increase in visitor arrivals, the existing Covid-19 protocols – including the wearing of masks – will remain in place for the foreseeable future.