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No time for complacency

The rubber is about to meet the road as government’s Covid-19 plan will soon be tested with an expected uptick in visitor arrivals from North America and Europe.

Recent changes to entry protocols are supposed to strengthen the first line of defense at our ports of entry and protect the island’s population from imported cases of Covid-19.

However, should this line be breached, defenses at the local and community levels must be strong enough to protect the island from community spread of the virus. Therefore, the onus is on government to step up enforcement of public health regulations.

Should government fail to do so and the virus is able to spread as in St. Lucia, the damage to the economy and loss of human lives could be catastrophic.

The decision to reduce the number of days, from five to three, for a PCR test before travel to the island is a good one. Since this is aimed at limiting the chances of a prospective traveler getting infected after taking the test.

This initiative, however, does not account for up to thirty percent false negative results for PCR testing. Therefore, recent official communications confirming the quarantine period is now seven days is a step in the right direction.

These changes are intended to strengthen the first line of defense at the border. However, the entry protocols are not one hundred percent impenetrable. With the virus raging out of control in North America, the island’s main source market for tourism, where over thirteen million are infected, two hundred and sixty nine thousand dead and ninety six thousand Americans hospitalised, the risk of imported cases are very high.

Government must seek to ramp up local enforcement efforts to prevent the virus from jumping to community and exponential spread.

The fast approaching Christmas season is a time when large numbers of people gather for social and religious events, Grenadians living abroad would return to the island to spend the holidays with family and friends, and large private and public parties will be held all over the country.

Huge numbers of persons are expected to be moving about shopping at supermarkets, buying gifts and household items at stores across the island. Bars and restaurants would be overflowing with patrons drinking and eating in merriment.

These are essentially mass super-spreader events that is the perfect opportunity for the virus to spread.

Some governments in the region in recognition of the situation has already made announcements aimed at restricting these types of activities to prevent spread of the virus.

The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago has said his government will ban all public and private parties including ministry parties.

The Prime Minister of Jamaica has announced a 5.00 p.m. to 7.00 a.m. curfew during the holiday period and the military reserves will be called out to assist police and army in enforcement efforts.

With the expected increase in visitor arrivals from high risk countries, large gathering and movement of people across the island the situation is perfect for community spread of the virus.

Will the government of Grenada follow suit and step up enforcement of public health regulations during the upcoming holidays to prevent community spread of the virus?

The science will suggest it makes a lot of sense to do so. Jarbas Barbosa of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) recently said, ‘during a pandemic there is no such thing as a risk-free holiday season, every gathering, every shopping trip, and every travel plan increases the chances of spreading the virus’.

He urged the public to avoid the “3Cs”- spaces that are closed, crowded or involve close contact with others. The conditions will be ideal for increase virus spread during the holiday season. Increase numbers of visitors from high risk countries where the virus is raging out of control and mass super-spreader events when combine could be a recipe for disaster.

Although entry protocols have been amended to reduce the risk of imported infections, there is still a glaring loophole where the virus can enter the island if nothing is done to remedy the situation.

The entry protocol states that a traveler must have a negative PCR test taken three days before travel to enter the country. On arrival the traveler will be placed in quarantine for seven days at a state approved accommodation facility.

It further states that on day four the visitor has an option to get a PCR test to be able to go into the community or can opt to remain at the place of quarantine for the remainder of the visit.

What if that visitor is one of the up to thirty percent false negative result of the PCR testing? Should the visitor choose not to enter the community and remain at the quarantine facility, most likely a guest house, villa or hotel, unaware he or she has a false negative result and is actually positive for the virus?

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That visitor would spread the virus to all who he/she comes in contact with at the quarantine facility. Are workers at quarantine facilities including security guards regularly and systematically tested for the virus?

Ministry of Health officials must answer this question since this is a conduit for the virus to move into communities across the island.

The entry protocols further states that a traveler can apply for home quarantine at least seven days before travel to the island. The problems with home quarantine are well documented. There have been many problems with monitoring devices and authorities are not able to effectively monitor these persons who are in home quarantine.

What if a false negative traveler who opt to go into home quarantine break the rules and enter the community? The virus will spread.

Government should immediately undertake regular testing of all workers at state-approved accommodation facilities including hotels, villas and guest houses, and restrict the number of persons in home quarantine to enable effective monitoring by health and police personnel.

If the first line of defense is breached and there is a chance it will since the system is not fail proof. The defenses at the community level should be strong enough to protect citizens from community spread.

However, this depend on government’s resolve to ensure adherence to public health regulations by ramping up enforcement efforts across the country.

In order to effectively do so government must learn from its mistakes last August when citizens defy regulations and engaged in carnival like activities. The public defiance was caused by ambiguity in messaging and double standards in enforcing regulations. This time around the stakes are much higher now that the borders are open and travelers from high risk countries are allowed entry.

Therefore, government needs to be even-handed when enforcing regulations as what is good for the goose must be good for the gander.

Community shops, bars and entertainment venues must not be forced to shut in accordance with regulations while similar places in Lance Aux Epines and True Blue are allowed to remain open.

Political supporters and friends must not be allowed to circumvent regulations while others are forced into adherence. The playing field must be level and all must be made to adhere to the regulations irrespective of race, class and social circumstance.

No one should be able to call a Minister or other senior authority figures and get a break from regulations.

Government should take the advice of PAHO and curtail mass gathering events over the holiday period by limiting public and private gatherings and parties.

Church services could be limited to half capacity and shopping hours adjusted to give persons more time to shop in the days leading up to Christmas Eve to avoid traditional late minute shopping which is known for large numbers of shoppers.

Government should announce that it will not have any ministry parties and ban all Christmas Eve and Old Year’s night mass gatherings and parties.

The Royal Grenada Police Force (RGPF) must also curb the overflow of patrons at rum shops and bars and ensure health regulations are adhered to.

The RGPF must reinvigorate its operational and enforcement tempo to step up adherence to the wearing of masks in public and on public transport. Persons should not be allowed to travel on a public transport without a mask and the RGPF should be checking buses en-route to monitor travelers.

The RGPF, working closely with health wardens and other officials, should increase ‘on the spot’, inspection of bars, restaurants and entertainment places during operating hours.

The RGPF should also step up coastal monitoring of coves and inlets to prevent breach of our border by yachtees trying to avoid quarantine.

Government and its agencies can’t afford to drop the ball during this period as the stakes are too high. Therefore, the right trade-offs must be arrived at and we must all be prepared to make sacrifices to make sure the expected uptick in visitor arrivals to the island would not lead to community spread of the virus.

The light can be seen at the end of the tunnel, however, the road is a long one. Though the promise of a vaccine is on the horizon the population should not expect vaccinations before the summer months, in the meantime complacency must not be allowed to set in.

The ball is in government’s court – this is an opportunity for it to show strong leadership and build on the success to date in keeping the virus at bay to ensure a good legacy.

Only time will tell if they are able to do that or become complacent and allow the virus to spread.

Special Correspondent

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