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Omicron Variant: Is Grenada preparing for when this new variant reaches our shores?

The recently identified variant of concern Omicron has caused virologists, epidemiologists, and public health officials around the world to scramble into action to protect their respective countries from this emerging threat.

Although much is not known of the virus there are concerns with the amount of mutations on the spike protein coat, that outer layer, which allows the virus to latch on and enter cells. It will take two to three weeks for scientists to determine if Omicron is more virulent, transmissible and able to evade current vaccines.

As the world waits with bated breath for scientists to get a better understanding of this new variant of concern, authorities in Grenada must not wait, rather they must start planning for when this mutation reaches our shores.

The Ministry of Health Covid-19 response team should plan for a worst case scenario that is Omicron will cause widespread severe illness, hospitalisations and death putting the entire healthcare infrastructure on the brink of collapse. Officials must determine when and how quickly they could move to an emergency footing.

Should results of ongoing research determine the virus is more transmissible and able to evade vaccines, the plan should be flexible enough to enable government to switch to a zero Covid policy reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic: a total lockdown, suspension of air travel and other measures to make sure the variant doesn’t take hold in the population.

Government must hope for the best possible outcome from these studies, while it plans for the worst. Already, the Ministry of Health Covid-19 response team and national Covid advisory committee should be doing situational assessments of the emerging global trend as it relates to Omicron.

The lessons learnt from the recent local wave of infections, hospitalisations and deaths caused by the Delta variant must be incorporated into the discussions as the government should try to stay ahead of the situation.

The plan should clearly address how to deal with complex dilemmas that would arise with another wave of infections, in particular, if Omicron is more transmissible and able to evade vaccines. For instance, should a lockdown be imposed notwithstanding its high cost or should the economy be kept open?

Should hospital capacity be expanded beyond available beds at the three existing hospitals on the island? If the answer is yes, when and whom do we seek assistance from for field hospitals? These and more are questions the plan must answer as the situation can become very fluid and out of control in the twinkle of an eye.

The Ministry of Health Covid-19 response team, national Covid advisory committee must take the lead and do its work in order for government not to be caught off guard as was the case earlier in the pandemic.

The Ministry of Health and government would want to make you believe that its management of the pandemic so far has been a big success, however closer scrutiny of the information and circumstances would tell a much different story.

Apart from the litany of missteps, inconsistencies and double standards in implementation of public health protocols, data from PAHO and John Hopkins University clearly indicates a massive failure by government in testing and surveillance leading up to the recent wave and in treatment and care during spread of the Delta variant.

According to PAHO, Grenada is among four Caribbean countries that have the highest in the Caribbean and among similar developing countries in the world by early August.

While most countries’ mortality rates are under two percent Grenada is well over two percent. John Hopkins University CSSE Covid-19 data suggests Grenada Case Fatality Ratio (CFR) or how many Covid-19 cases succumb to the disease is the highest in the Caribbean and the world.

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The island moved from having one Covid-19 related death by early August to two hundred in just two months during which time daily infection rates rose to over three hundred at the height of the surge. This is a clear indictment on government’s failure to set up a well-functioning parallel health system to provide adequate treatment and care to infected patients who required hospitalisation.

The family and friends of those who died unnecessarily must hold the government accountable for this huge policy failure. Government, on the other hand, should try and redeem themselves by making sure this time around a comprehensive plan is drawn up that would guide its actions in the event Omicron is more lethal, easily spread and can evade current vaccines.

The ban on travellers from Southern African countries doesn’t amount to much since the island doesn’t have direct flights to these countries. Omicron has now spread to over nineteen countries in Europe and is now confirmed in Canada and the United States, main source markets for our tourism industry. It is therefore imperative that government have a plan that is well thought out and reflects the lessons learnt from the recent deadly spread of the Delta variant across the island.

The plan must be nimble enough to enable government to respond quickly to any eventuality that may occur within this emerging global public health emergency. The situation of senior health officials running around panicking like headless chickens should not be repeated again.

Rather than be reactive, taking knee jerk actions during a crisis, the plan should help government to be proactive in implementing timely actions to protect the population from another onslaught resulting in needless deaths and suffering.

The evolution of Omicron highlights the importance of getting more persons among the eligible population vaccinated to protect the vulnerable and young children who are not able to receive the vaccine at this time.

The Prime Minister must stop this deceptive and unfair approach to the vaccine mandate which forces private sector workers to get vaccinated while leaving public sector workers untouched.

It is utterly unfair to affected private sector workers and the time has come for the Prime Minister and his government to demonstrate astute and decisive leadership rather than play political football with the lives of Grenadians.

Private sector leaders must push back at further attempts by government to step up enforcement and expand vaccine mandates within the sector if they are not willing to do the same in the public sector.

The leader and his government can’t repeatedly fail to plan to protect the population from this deadly enemy called the coronavirus and on top of that fail to take action to prevent the virus from wreaking havoc on the people.

Omicron will find its way to Grenada and the government needs to have a proper plan that would help it to effectively respond when the virus gets here. Additionally, in order to build resilience among the population, government must take decisive steps to ensure over seventy percent of the eligible population is vaccinated.

For the desire to remain in power must not be placed over the lives of Grenadians nor the failure to properly plan should result in more lives needlessly lost to Covid-19.

The time to plan and take action to protect the nation from Omicron is now.

Special Correspondent