Cabinet has added five more countries to the travel restrictions and has given Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh sweeping authority to add more countries without Cabinet’s approval.
These measures form part of Government’s shift in gear in its attempt to safeguard the country from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Among the measures, hospitals will be outfitted with several more beds and a standing committee involving key ministers and response agencies to treat with emerging public health concerns.
The countries added to the restricted list include South Korea, Italy, Iran, Singapore and Japan, which have seen rapid increases in cases within the last week.
The cases in Italy have led to the virus’ spread through Europe and the cases in Iran to the spread in the Middle East.
“The situation has changed rapidly…whilst the number of new cases in China seems to be going down—and that is a good sign- the flipside of that is the number of cases outside of China is going up,” Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh said during yesterday’s post-Cabinet news conference.
The travel restriction was announced on January 30 but only applied to travellers trying to enter T&T after being to China within 14 days.
The ramping up of the protocols comes amid mounting international concern over the spread of the COVID-19 outside of its epicentre in mainland China.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley indicated T&T needs to be prepared for the eventuality of the virus reaching our shores.
“We would expect or I should say that we hope that by the time the virus would have run its course, it would not have reached our shores. But given the connections that we have and the businesses that we do around the world, it is quite likely that somewhere along the way we could be exposed to persons who are infected being in our border or coming to us as nationals who have every right to return to Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.
Rise in cases
The COVID-19 has been receiving global attention since late December with countries across the globe trying to limit its spread to their shores. However, within the last week, the cases outside of China caused concern as the figure jumped from 924 confirmed cases and three deaths among 25 countries, to 2,918 confirmed cases and 44 deaths among 37 countries within seven days.
On Wednesday the Caribbean Public Health Authority (CARPHA) raised the region’s risk level from “Low”, to “Moderate to High” and Brazil confirmed its first case of the virus in Sao Paulo.
On Tuesday the World Health Organisation (WHO) also warned that the world should prepare for a pandemic.
Cabinet has also authorised the Health Minister to be able to tailor the list of countries which the restriction would apply to without their oversight. Deyalsingh explained that effective immediately, he would be able to add countries to this list without consulting Cabinet.
However, he would first need to consult with the Minister of National Security and the Prime Minister.
“So I will not have to come back to Cabinet every week or every two days,” he said.
Minister of National Security Stuart Young noted that this would increase the country’s reaction time to the virus’ development.
Further isolation facilities
Since the announcement of the travel ban, the Government’s efforts focused heavily on preventing the virus from reaching our shores. However, Minister Deyalsingh explained that they would be ramping up the already existing protocols for treating and isolating the virus if it reaches.
Among the plans in place in case of an outbreak, is the addition of 20 beds at the Caura hospital where there is currently only four in its quarantine facilities. Deyalsingh said they could also use the newly commissioned St James facility which has 67 beds as well as the old COSTAATT building at the Port-of-Spain Hospital.
These additional facilities, he said, would be on stream within the next two to three weeks.
Should there be a serious outbreak in the country despite the efforts, he said, the Couva Hospital would be used as a centralised hub for treatment for those who may potentially be affected.
“We must have a major medical facility which could be quarantined, locked down by security…that will be designated as a level, sort of three, facility because there now you have ICU capacity if needed, you have operating theatres if needed. That facility is currently being operationalised to do just that and has been for the past week or so,” he explained.
The ministry, he said, would also be working with the Tobago Regional Health Authority to ramp up the island’s isolation capability.
Standing committee established
The Health Minister also indicated that Cabinet approved the ministry’s recommendation to establish “a sort of standing committee to deal with public health concerns and emerging infectious diseases.”
He explained the committee would be chaired by the Chief Medical Officer and would report “jointly to the Minister of Health and the Minister of National Security.”
He listed over 20 ministries and state response agencies such as the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of National Security, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management that would sit on this committee.
He justified the committee citing a WHO prediction that new and emerging viruses such as COVID-19 and others such as Chikungunya and Ebola would become more common. (See Page 6)