Chief Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health, Dr. Roshan Parasram speaks during the JSC Meeting, yesterday.

Heightened COVID-19 alert!

Government’s plans to deal with the threat of the global virus includes launching a hotline next week for people to check symptoms, discussions with the business sector on sanitising public spaces and a recommendation that the public minimises mass gatherings if the virus arises.

A vessel’s also ready to bring suspected Tobago cases to Trinidad and worst-case scenario, in an outbreak, could involve closure of schools and businesses and a state of emergency.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram spoke about these matters yesterday as he and officials from other ministries updated a Parliamentary team on the latest measures concerning the virus, now affecting 120,000 people worldwide with over 4,200 deaths. The World Health Organisation yesterday declared it a pandemic – an epidemic that’s spread over several countries, affecting large numbers.

T&T so far has no confirmed cases although 40 people were tested. None were positive. Eight people were in self- isolation, according to the latest figures.

So far 10 non-nationals (from Finland, the USA, China, Japan, Jamaica and Italy) have been refused entry to T&T. Parsaram said 10 was a low figure. T&T has travel restrictions on nine countries, with the latest being Spain France and Germany.

Parasram’s statements also came a day after Canadian authorities revealed a COVID-19 case in Alberta had a travel history which included T&T and news of a second case in Jamaica.

Parasram said the COVID Hot Line is expected to be launched next week. Operators will include doctors. He said an assessment of callers’ symptoms will be done and the use of Facetime photos to show the patient are also a possibility. He said it’s difficult to distinguish COVID-19 from the common cold and influenza.

The Health Ministry also meets on Monday with the T&T Chamber to “get a springboard” with the private sector on the way they can sanitise public spaces like supermarkets. He said this includes, for instance, trolley handles and having gloves for shoppers to put on when entering a supermarket.

“That’ll take us a long way,” Parasram said.

He said talks can include what can be done in other areas including gyms, noting such facilities have many hard surfaces and contact points and these needed to be sanitised frequently.

He said since COVID-19 is spread by bigger droplets from sneezes/coughs – and aren’t like smaller droplets which can be dispersed by air conditioning units – sanitising is a priority, especially on hard surfaces like doorknobs, railings, seats and tables.

Noting T&T’s now in the flu season until May, Parasram said apart from hygiene, social distancing is also important. As T&T has no cases of risk of local spread, he said at this time authorities were dissuading mass gatherings which could spread disease and flu.

“If the population can try to minimise having mass gatherings of any sort it will go a long way in terms of community spread if and when COVID occurs.”

He said cutting mass gatherings would be based on the ministry’s three-tier system for worst-case scenarios. The first tier involves quarantine of a patient to prevent community spread. Tier two would require immediate isolation of a patient, monitoring people in close proximity to them and possible closure of schools/workplaces where they were. Tier-three pertains to massive spread and includes measures up to a state of emergency (SoE). He said there may be laws that can halt people from congregating based on an SoE.

A sub-committee on the COVID issue will send a report to Health and National Security soon.

Parasram said suspected Tobago cases will be quarantined. If positive, the person will be brought to the Caura or Couva hospitals. He said Tobago was concerned about contamination of Scarborough hospital and felt it would be safer to send a suspected case to Trinidad. A vessel has been selected for transportation since the ministry didn’t want to use the public airbridge or helicopter.

Parasram said 112 beds in Couva hospital’s Paediatric section will house confirmed patients once the hospital’s up and running. There was a discussion on using the Augustus Long Hospital also but the Couva hospital will be the primary centre, though no concrete arrangement is in place yet, he added.

Parasram said Health is working with Nipdec on what drugs are of critical need. Meetings were held with the T&T Chamber to source alternative supplies. Parasram said a COVID vaccine wouldn’t be forthcoming this year and may take years.

Finance Ministry deputy permanent secretary Savitree Seepersad meanwhile said Finance is aware additional funding may be needed to prepare and fight the virus and the mechanism for this is via the mid-year review.