The Keith Mitchell-led Cabinet of Ministers has decided to resume face-to-face learning in full in schools from next week Monday (January 10) amidst the occurrence of a second surge in COVID-19 cases on the island.
Schools reopened for students in exit grades on Monday amidst the increasing presence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19, which was confirmed on the island on December 31.
Acting Chief Medical Officer in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Shawn Charles expressed strong support for the decision to reopen schools at this time, saying that “91% of the active cases were detected in the last eight (8) days.”
According to Dr. Charles, the island has not “seen much of an impact yet on our health system…or deaths” as experienced during the first spike in cases detected in August last year, which was dominated by the delta variant.
Speaking to reporters at Tuesday’s post-Cabinet media briefing, he confirmed that Omicron is now driving the latest surge of COVID-19 infections on the island at this time.
“There are countries that have worse outbreaks than ours and schools are prioritised to open. The thing is this thing (COVID-19) is not going to change tomorrow, it may not change this year, it may not change next year but our children cannot wait…we cannot suspend and postpone the education of our children any further. Many children are simply falling off the radar. I don’t know how we can ignore (or) how anyone can justify this any further,” he said.
“We will address whatever challenges (that) come up…If there are schools that are affected, we will go in to test, we will quarantine but we can’t keep these children at home forever. It is no longer acceptable,” he added.
Dr. Charles also pointed to research that shows although Omicron is not deadly, it has been spreading at a much quicker pace than the delta variant.
Health Minister Nickolas Steele, who also addressed Tuesday’s media brief dismissed suggestions by the newly elected Political Leader of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) that the government should have invested more to ensure that amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, now dubbed an endemic, all students can access online learning.
“The question is not how do we keep our kids away from each other, it’s how do we get our kids back together. We all went to school, and school is a social, physical interaction part of the learning experience…we are going on year three (3), and to comfortably sit and say that we should have invested more money on keeping kids home so that they can do things virtually. No.
“Virtual learning has its place (and) so too does the physical interaction that is very much needed. There are significant risks in bringing our kids back to school but I think the risks of keeping our kids away from school are just as great if not greater”.
Although vaccine coverage on the island has been quite low, with just over 35, 925 persons fully vaccinated, Dr. Charles expressed confidence that the Ministry of Health is in a better position to manage the surge in cases, due to its ability to conduct genetic sequencing, which he said has put the county in a better position to detect, identify and respond to new variants of COVID-19.
“We have just over 30% of the population fully vaccinated…we have a significant number of persons who were previously infected with the delta variant very recently. So, when you take immunity, vaccinations, previous infections it adds up. In addition, we have more experience in handling surges of cases and all of these put us in a better position to handle new waves,” he said
“We are not as anxious as we were when we were basically naive and these are what puts us in a better position,” he added.
One week earlier, Dr. Charles had told a televised Ministry of Health’s programme that “it is still too early to say how serious it (Omicron) is going to be because we simply do not have enough information to work with, and the uncertainty is quite challenging.”
According to Dr. Charles, the Ministry of Health is monitoring global research of omicron, which has an incubation period of two (2) to (4) days, which is much shorter than the original COVID-19 strain, which had a full duration of (two (2) to 14 days, and the delta variant, which saw an average incubation period of four (4) to seven (7) days.
The acting CMO continued to emphasise on the importance of COVID-19 vaccine, although acknowledging that there has been “a waning of immunity,” with a booster shot or a third dose as recommended” for added protection.
According to the Ministry of Health’s data, 2, 933 booster doses have been administered so far.
Additionally, Dr. Charles explained that “vaccine breakthrough infections” have also been detected in persons who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
According to the United States-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a vaccine breakthrough infection happens when a fully vaccinated person gets infected with COVID-19 and people with vaccine breakthrough infections may spread COVID-19 to others.
“What has been observed is that these individuals sometimes have no symptoms or very mild symptoms. So, persons who get breakthrough infections generally don’t get sick…It could be as a result of waning immunity but it could (also) be as a result of the virus acquiring certain traits (or) characteristics that makes it get around the immune protection.
“These things are being studied – what has been observed so far is that the clinical course has been milder than the previous variants” said Dr. Charles who was not in a position to provide data as it relates to the number of breakthrough infections on island.
“But certainly from the numbers that are recorded I am almost certain that there are vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals and individuals who were previously infected among the 600 plus (new cases),” he remarked.
The surge in omicron cases was detected weeks after the government took a decision to remove the nightly curfew that has been in place for months, ahead of last year’s festive Christmas holidays, and has led to the government backpedaling on the decision to reopen schools with the full capacity of students on Monday.
However, in an attempt to “create balance between education and safety,” and address challenges for many students who have been unable to participate in remote learning during the COVID-19 period, Education Minister Emmalin Pierre has affirmed that there are protocols in place to address the possibility of Covid-19 cases in schools.
Minister Pierre told Monday night’s Grenada Broadcasting Network (GBN) ‘Beyond The Headlines’ programme that while a curfew is not on the cards at this time, “Cabinet is more concerned about people taking personal responsibility for their actions,” which can either increase or minimise the spread of the virus.