By Gemma Handy

Around half a million dollars is being ploughed into the refurbishment of Holberton Hospital’s Margetson Ward as government steps up efforts to keep the dreaded coronavirus out of the country.

The facility at the former hospital site is set to be operational within a fortnight.

Health chiefs announced earlier this month that the disused ward will be repurposed for use as a quarantine centre and to isolate any suspected cases of the potentially deadly virus.

Yesterday they warned that the public should be “very concerned” about the respiratory illness which has now infected more than 71,000 people worldwide, killing almost 1,900.

Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas told a press conference there were still no confirmed cases in the Caribbean – and detailed an arsenal of measures to keep the twin island nation virus-free.

Intense scrutiny remains in place at all ports of entry, encompassing everything from aircraft to cruise ships and cargo vessels. A “very detailed travel history” is being sought from all international travellers, she said.

Protective gear, including gowns and goggles, is also on the ground in case of an outbreak.

The public have a key role to play too. “Regular hand washing, and good cough and sneeze etiquette” is vital, the CMO said.

Repurposing the Margetson Ward on the Queen Elizabeth Highway-based compound is part of wider plans to beef up the country’s response to viruses.

“Some years ago we saw SARS,” Dr Sealey-Thomas said, referring to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome which broke out in 2003 sparking fears across the globe.

“In a couple of years from now it will be something else. We need to have a team in place that we can call on at any time to respond to any future threats,” she explained.

To date, a total of 14 people have been quarantined in Antigua, Dr Anju Smith, who has responsibility for epidemiology and surveillance, told the press conference.

Her team has been on the ground at VC Bird International Airport screening everyone who has recently visited China.

Of the 14, just three remain in quarantine. Five have since been repatriated and six have completed the quarantine period showing no signs of the virus.

Five of the 14 are students who returned home from China. “All are doing very well,” Dr Smith said.

Health Minister Molwyn Joseph said the $500,000 cost of refurbishing the old hospital was an estimate.

“It’s safer for the society of Antigua and Barbuda that if we were to have a case of the coronavirus, it’s better that we have a specialised area for treating that person rather than having that person at Mount St John’s Medical Centre,” he explained. He reminded the public that passengers heading into the country from places with confirmed cases of the illness, including the UK and US, would have been pre-screened at the airport they flew in from. Anyone showing signs of the illness would not be allowed to board, the minister added.