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Members of the public, wearing masks to protect against COVID-19, cross at the zebra crossing at South Quay, Port-of-Spain, yesterday.

Trinidadians now have a chance to exhale.

From Monday, all public servants will return to work – minus any mandatory vaccination plan – following a reduction of Public Health Regulations announced by the Government yesterday.

Numbers for gatherings and public transport capacity will also be increased and there are hopes for all children to return to physical schooling in term three, which will come after the Easter vacation.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced these and other initiatives in Parliament yesterday.

He said T&T is currently well into living with the COVID-19 disease and was preparing to move from the acute phase of the pandemic into the endemic phase.

“T&T is at another milestone moment as we decide how we respond to the virus and manage our living with the virus. It is time for us to allow for greater discretion and personal responsibility to prevail in the society,” Rowley told Parliament.

“These initiatives move us closer to the resumption of normal life and will be implemented via the Public Health Regulations (where appropriate).”

The new measures will be done via Public Health Regulations to come into force on Monday.

The transition is due to several factors from the new Omicron variant’s effect to lower COVID case numbers.

Rowley said it quickly became evident that the severity of disease – and thus the requirement for hospitalisation – in the adult population, as initially feared, didn’t materialise with the highly infectious Omicron.

He said T&T had not observed a sustained increase beyond the Delta variant in terms of the number of cases.

“Thankfully, to date, we’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of hospitalisations and deaths arising out of this new variant of concern,” the PM said.

“From December 23rd, 2021, onwards, a consistent but gradual decrease in hospital occupancy was noted. This encouraging trend caused us to hesitate and hold on any further drastic response, even as we remained wary of the presence of the virus amongst the entire population.”

He cited a drop in COVID cases and deaths to the lowest hospital occupancy level last month. Yesterday’s, Health Ministry bulletin cited 345 new cases and seven deaths. Fatalities have been in single digits in recent weeks.

Rowley said, “Over the past two weeks, overall hospital occupancy has steadily decreased from the benchmark of 40 per cent to 31 per cent. As of March 1st, a similar trend was noted across all levels of care, and facilities. At 8 am March 1st, within the Accident and Emergency Departments of our Parallel Healthcare System, a total of only 15 patients were being managed, with zero ICU level patients. A consistent trend of decreasing admissions to A &E Departments has been noted.”

Announcing measures for the public service, Rowley said, “As of Monday 7th, March 2022, the public service will return to full service and all public servants will be expected to return to work as normal.”

He was asked by United National Congress MP Roodal Moonilal if Government had “climbed down” on its position of mandatory vaccination in the public service.”

Rowley said, “That will be caught up with what I said when I said that given the surprisingly good results and the behaviour of Omicron, that we have placed on hold drastic actions because the circumstances have changed drastically between mid-December and March.”

Assisting the march onwards, Rowley said that in addition to vaccines, “We now have some new therapeutics to help fight this disease and we’re expecting additional therapeutics in the near future aimed at treating mild and moderate disease.”

The transition will include changes with the parallel health system.

The Ministry of Health, he said, will present a “national pathway” for the consolidation of the Public Health Service. That involves the return of the health system and, by extension, health services, to an as-near-normal existence.

He said a structured risk-based approach will be adopted to gradually reduce the footprint of the parallel healthcare systems and regularising the hospital system.

“The proposal will be implemented on a phased basis based on real-time risk assessment, starting with Point Fortin. The Minister will give further details next week.”

Rowley assured that the parallel healthcare system can be readily escalated, or de-escalated, based on specific needs.

He said Government was confident in the knowledge that after more than two years,”The population has, for the most part, the wherewithal to navigate the vagaries of this pandemic.”

THE ADJUSTMENTS

* RETAINING MASKS – Especially due to the circulation of the extremely infectious Omicron variant, which lends itself to aerosolization and to significantly asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic disease. Mask use remains in force at this time in all public spaces and places where there is public interaction.

* PUBLIC TRANSPORT – Will be allowed to return to 100 per cent of capacity. Mask-wearing will continue to be required in vehicles used for public transport, including vehicles in which persons are paying to be transported.

* FAMILIES – Will no longer be required to be masked in their vehicles. This change also applies to marine vessels used by families.

* RELIGION – Removal of restrictions with respect to the length of time and numerical capacity at religious places of worship. But mask-wearing continues to be required during services.

* FUNERALS – Funeral service numbers will be unrestricted but mask-wearing is mandatory for the time being.

* UNVACCINATED – Nationals returning to T&T – a reduction in the quarantine time would be applicable. Quarantine time will be reduced from 14 to 7 days with discharge taking place on the receipt of a negative PCR test on the 7th day.

* QUARANTINE – Decrease in the national quarantine time (for contacts of positive cases) from 14 to 10 days. This will allow for increased productivity and a decrease in the likelihood of staffing shortages, especially amongst the essential services. The Health Ministry recently reduced the isolation time for positive patients from 21 days in all categories, to 10 days for persons with no symptoms and 13 days for those with moderate to severe disease.

* PUBLIC GATHERINGS – Gatherings of people in groups of no more than 25 is now to be permissible.

* TEAM/CONTACT SPORTS – Such activity can recommence.

* ESTABLISHMENTS – Establishments currently allowed to operate as safe zones for vaccinated/exempted persons and children under the age of 12, will operate at 75 per cent capacity.

* EDUCATION – All children will be permitted to return to physical schooling in term three, provided there are no dangerous changes in T&T’s COVID-19 position. The Education Ministry will issue necessary guidelines to safely manage this process

* PUBLIC SERVICE – From Monday 7, March 2022, the public service returns to full service and ALL public servants will be expected to return to work as normal.

* PARALLEL HEALTHCARE: De-escalation of the parallel healthcare system, in preparation for transition from the acute phase to the endemic phase of COVID-19.