Two more virus cases, health officials “working feverishly” to trace contacts

Epidemiologist Dr Anju Smith and Health Minister Molwyn Joseph
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By Carl Joseph

Health officials confirmed two new imported cases of the coronavirus to the country yesterday – and are still in the process of seeking to complete trace history on at least one of them.

The first was a 76-year-old male described as having a history of hypertension who flew in from the UK on March 10. He began experiencing symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea and coughing.

Seven days after his arrival, he visited a health-care facility where samples were taken from him for testing for COVID-19. The man and his wife were placed in an isolation facility for monitoring and treatment.

Health Minister Molwyn Joseph says the man has since shown signs of recovery.

He was not on the same plane as the country’s first confirmed case who also arrived on March 10. In that case, Joseph said health officials were able to track down everyone on that British Airways flight. A total of 23 people who may have been in contact with the 21-year-old female patient were quarantined.

Joseph said that the Health Ministry has been working feverishly to conduct contact trace history with all persons who have tested positive so far. Interviews, he said, have been conducted with the patients themselves, their families, the airlines, hospitals and hotels to “identify any close contacts”.

“Very concerned” were the words the minister used to describe the seven-day period between the time the 76-year-old arrived on island to his eventual isolation.

Epidemiologist Dr Anju Smith said her department had followed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines to trace people the British man may have encountered during his time in Antigua.

WHO guidelines distinguish between a close contact and a casual contact.

A close contact can mean living in the same house or spending more than 15 minutes close to someone with the virus, while a casual contact could mean, for example, someone travelling on the same aeroplane but seated away from the infected person.

The second new case is a 54-year-old man said to be in good previous health, who arrived from New York on March 17. The man subsequently exhibited symptoms of high fever and coughing and was tested on March 19.

Both new cases, health officials said, were mild with the expectation of a full recovery.

The minister affirmed that, to date, all cases of COVID-19 in Antigua and Barbuda have been imported and there has not been any person-to-person transmission of the virus.

To date, 57 people have either been isolated or quarantined in the country, with around half of them deemed clear of the virus. Seven people are in state-governed quarantine facilities, awaiting clearance from health officials, while the remaining 23 are at home.

Joseph reiterated the government’s intention to keep the country’s borders open while “managing the risks” associated with the possible spread of the virus.

But the minister did indicate that most of the major airlines would soon be ceasing operations around the world.

He described that by month’s end, both UK-based carriers, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, would be flying into Antigua “virtually empty” as their main intent will be to pick up passengers wishing to return home.

“If we close our borders, chances are those people will not be able to leave Antigua and go back to their families,” the minister insisted.

In the interim, Joseph outlined that screenings have intensified at both the air and sea ports as the ministry has added the “necessary” manpower to accommodate.

With two of the three confirmed virus cases originating from the UK, the health minister indicated that new airline routines have been arranged with British carriers to allow for stricter protocols to be enforced.

Health care officials will now be stationed outside each plane as visitors disembark in queues of 20. If they are unsatisfied with the pre-boarding information provided to them, Joseph said, they will now have the option to deny them entry into the country, returning them to the UK on the same plane on which they arrived.

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