Terrence Deyalsingh

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If the Government accedes to demands to reopen more sectors of the economy, it risks exposing the country to another wave of COVID-19 which can overburden the health care system, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said yesterday.

Responding to a protest outside the Diplomatic Centre on Wednesday where demonstrators called for all businesses to be reopened, Deyalsingh said the Government’s priority is to save lives.

“The assurance I want to give everybody is that the Government of Trinidad & Tobago knows that all sectors that are not opened are going through periods of hardship. However, if we do not learn from other countries that opened too soon, the speed at which we would want to open up other sectors would be slowed down,” Deyalsingh said.

He added: “We will slingshot back into last week and I don’t think the hairdressers want that, or the nail techs want that. I understand their need for speed, but if we as a Government open the entire economy at the same time, the very people who you are advocating for and I am advocating for, they will be severely disadvantaged in the medium to long-term. We will have to go back and clamp down again.”

He said close physical contact was defined as being within three feet of a person for 15 minutes or more, noting this increases the risk of virus spread. For this reason, he said nail technicians, masseuses and hairdressers operate in high-risk conditions.

The ministry Principal Medical Officer of Health – Epidemiology Dr Naresh Nandram said that at this stage it would be easy to regress.

While May 24 could herald the second phase of reopening, Deyalsingh said it may bring sleepless nights.

It will be 14 days after food businesses reopened, increasing the number of people leaving their homes and heightening the risk of infections.

“It is from Monday, a week after the lifting of these initial restrictions that you are going to start to get this second wave of infections… If the results are good, it is possible that phases two, three and forward can be compressed. We are not unsympathetic to the plight of small businesses and the plight of sole traders, but this is in the national interest,” Deyalsingh said.

“Next week is a critical week and that is why we did not open the economy by flipping a switch. We are doing it like a dimmer. You turn it up slowly and let the light shine. Let us go with the dimmer approach and gradually turn it up; see if we can take the load and make sure our hospitals do not get overwhelmed.”

As the ministry moves to increase local testing capacity, Nandram said they had also ordered Point-of-Care Testing (POCT) machines for decentralising of COVID-19 testing. Once received, the Port-of-Spain General Hospital, Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Sangre Grande Hospital and San Fernando General Hospital will begin testing. The Tobago Regional Health Authority already has a POCT machine that should be commissioned soon.

Nandram said these molecular-based machines give them an advantage as results are received within an hour after submitting samples.