Ira Mathur

Ira Mathur


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At this rate, Christmas in T&T, some 2,000 people will be dead of COVID-19 since the start of the virus. The figure up to Thursday was 1,629. Until 90 per cent of us are either vaccinated or have gotten COVID, the pandemic is here to stay.

We panic when the murder rate hits 500. COVID-19 deaths are four times that number. People buy burglar proofing, put in alarms, and protect themselves from rising crime. Yet preventable deaths with readily available vaccines continue unabated as people ‘wait and see’–the latest being a couple with no comorbidities who died from the virus, leaving four orphaned children.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is charged with crimes against humanity for the failure to protect the Brazilian population from the COVID-19 virus that has led to 600,000 COVID-19 deaths.

When this is all over, not just Bolsonaro, but every single world leader will be made to account for the people they serve, grilled and judged.

They will be grilled. How many died of COVID-19? What did you do to protect your citizens from the virus.? Did you battle disinformation? Did you equip intensive care units? Did you acquire sufficient vaccines?

I conducted a joint interview with the Minister of Health, Terrence Deyalsingh and the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Roshan Parasram who account for the Government’s management of the nation’s health during the pandemic.

Are our lockdowns, mask, social distancing, curfew and safe zones working?

Minister of Health: We are doing better than most countries, both developed and developing. For example, with 139,000 deaths and a population of 65 million people, the UK has a death rate of 0.2 per cent. Trinidad and Tobago’s deaths per million people is 0.1 per cent.

Research has indicated a low risk of transmission in open outdoor spaces. Are we too cautious with the mask policy and beach closure, especially when more than a third of the population is fully vaccinated? What epidemiological conditions will be needed to adjust or remove the mask mandate?

Minister of Health: Our rate of vaccination is not high enough to take that. Even with high vaccination, the UK faces another spike in the virus after relaxing the mask mandate due to the Delta variant, the higher rate of unvaccinated children aged 12-17 leading to a ‘six-fold hospital admissions and three-fold higher death rate compared to Europe’. Their health system is being overwhelmed, and people are in ICU. This was reported by the BBC and CNBC. Countries like that will have to turn around and reinstate the mask laws. Our approach is cautious, yes, but it’s keeping our people safe.

Can you do a vaccine breakdown for me? Who is eligible, who still needs to take it, and what per cent of adults are fully vaccinated? Are you meeting the targets set by the Prime Minister?

CMO: Some 980,000 adults in T&T are eligible for the vaccine.

Some 360,000 are under the age of 18.

Some 260,000 are under the age of 12, and there is no vaccine approved for them.

Some 100,000 children between 12-18 are eligible. Of these, 50,000 have been fully vaccinated.

We have given vaccines to over 600,000 people in T&T.

This means, 55 per cent of adults (18 plus) have taken the vaccine.

The WHO has extended the expiry date for the Pfizer till the end of February.

Johnson and Johnson have an expiry date of 2023. We are moving towards meeting the targets set by the Prime Minister.

How many close-to-expiry AstraZeneca vaccines did the Ministry of Health give away and to whom?

CMO: Canada gave us 84k AstraZeneca vaccines which they didn’t need. We, in turn, gave about 40k to Nicaragua and smaller amounts to Caribbean countries and kept the rest for our second shots.

Are more people taking the vaccine after the establishment of safe zones?

It is going well, with some 3,000 people taking vaccines daily for over two weeks.

We believe the ‘wait-and-see late adopters’ will also start taking this, and once they and more schoolchildren are vaccinated, we will get closer to the PM’s targets.

Given the virulence of Delta and breakthrough infections will we go the way of boosters?

CMO: Sinopharm offers a third vaccine, not a booster, but a primary dose, for people over 60. In the weeks ahead, Trinidad will decide on that determination from WHO on the third shot. It will be based on data on the age groups requiring boosting to acquire further immunity. There is no telling what the situation evolves and new variants emerge. There has been a moratorium of boosters’ approval until January 2022 to allow an equitable distribution of vaccines from COVAX to developing countries.

With almost half of our people still refusing to take the vaccine and the steady daily death count, do you think the Government is failing to get the word out there that those vaccines are safe and necessary to survive COVID-19, especially for those with comorbidities? Do people know that you can get the virus even after being vaccinated, which will prevent them from becoming hospitalised or dying? Why is vaccine hesitancy so high?

Minister of Health: According to the BBC, out of the UK, of 51,000 deaths from COVID only (0.05 per cent), 256 were fully vaccinated–most of these had serious comorbidities. Those numbers mean that the risk of dying for a vaccinated person compared to an unvaccinated person is one vaccinated person to 200 vaccinated people.

Misinformation is a global problem with people trusting unqualified people and anti-vaxxers on social media rather than their doctors.

Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, reportedly died from complications from COVID-19. He was 84 and fully vaccinated. CNN claimed Powell had multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that suppresses the body’s immune response, and Parkinson’s disease. Are you worried that anti-vaccine activists will seize upon Powell’s death to make the claim that vaccines don’t work?

CMO: I cannot deny or affirm Colin Powell’s personal medical information out in the media. What I have to say about Powell is this, if it is claimed Powell was 84 years old, being treated for cancer, and had Parkinson’s disease with a reduced immune system, his risk of succumbing to infection would have been high.

What is the population to take away from the fully vaccinated elderly gentleman who died after taking the vaccine?

CMO: I don’t want to speculate or breach confidentiality, but the fully vaccinated older gentleman passed away from another disease, not COVID-19 or the vaccine. The media constantly report the exception, not the rule, which panics the population and creates greater vaccine hesitancy. 98 per cent of the people who tragically died of COVID-19 in T&T were not vaccinated, and only two per cent were partially vaccinated.

94.5 of hospitalised people are not vaccinated, and we have begun to put that in our updates. We need media to help focus on the fact that unvaccinated people are dying and have died. The two per cent of fully vaccinated people who died were very ill from comorbidities, and the virus weakened them. To repeat.

Almost everyone who died from COVID-19–that is, 98 per cent of people–were not vaccinated, reflecting global numbers.

Can you modify the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard to clarify the number of daily deaths? And is it possible without compromising patient confidentiality to let us know the comorbidities of the people who died of COVID?

CMO: Yes, we can and will change that to make it more straightforward, and we will announce comorbidities almost immediately without compromising patient confidentiality.

How does the Ministry of Health plan to engage with stakeholders to launch an entire cross-media vaccination hesitancy campaign, with targeted outcomes?

Minster of Health: We are managing a global pandemic to the best of our ability.

Outside of three conferences per week held or rotated by Dr Hinds, Dr Parasram and I, we have ten doctors who routinely engage on radio stations countrywide dealing with people’s concerns about vaccination and dispelling misinformation. I went in personally to speak on prison radio to take questions from inmates in studies and answer all their questions. We have an outreach countrywide to educate people about vaccines, including radio ads, social media, outreach activities, companies, churches, mosques, mandirs, and business committees. We disseminate information in remote communities, health care centres, and mass vaccine sites to encourage the population to make informed decisions. We have trained practitioners to counsel patients. We have a FAQ for all the vaccines and train practitioners to advise patients.

How is the Ministry of Health handling the current chickenpox outbreak in the Port-of-Spain Prison?

CMO: The prisons medical systems are independent of the Ministry of Health and are monitored by the Prisons Authority. Prisons are prone to high numbers of infections due to proximity and limited airflow. There is a chickenpox outbreak currently 15-20 persons. It’s a highly contagious viral illness. There are many such outbreaks in a given year, and it is well under control by prison medical officers who continue to monitor it.

When can we expect the rollout of the digitisation of vaccine cards?

Minister of Health: We began working on it four months ago and will announce that shortly from that department.

Are you comfortable with the length of time it takes at the public health care facilities, in some instances hours at best and days at its worst, to move from the Accident and Emergency Department to get a bed and placed in the ward? What is being done to improve this situation?

Minister of Health: Send me data on that as that is not my information. I get a daily report, and there may be exceptions, but it’s certainly not the rule. No, the services haven’t been compromised.

Are you concerned about the security of drugs at the public health facilities and the general efficiency of equipment at the institutions?

Minister of Health: Yes, and that’s why since last year we instituted a programme where all vehicles leaving major hospitals have to be searched more CCTV camera systems, reporting monitoring and control.

Currently, the CT scan machine at the PoS General Hospital is reportedly down. Why does the PoS hospital not have a cardiology dept, a neurology dept or a CT lab?

Minister of Health: A new tube was ordered and installed. The PoS hospital never had a neurology department. CT scans and cardiology is routinely referred to the EWMSC and nephrolithotripsy to San Fernando. In the tertiary health care system, it is global best practice not to replicate all services at all facilities. Different services are offered in various facilities, but all health services are covered by the Government.

There is a perception that journalists who cannot attend the pressers are stonewalled, and the Ministry of Health team managing the COVID-19 virus are unavailable for comment or information.

Minister of Health: I disagree with that perception. We don’t decide on who comes to the press conferences or the rotation of journalists coming to pressers. We’ve had bloggers send in questions via email. We encourage that and are happy to partner with the Media Association to send in further questions. Our doors are wide open to all media, traditional and non-traditional. But we can’t guarantee an instantaneous response because someone on FB says something, and the requests come five minutes before the news. Every time someone on social media spews disinformation, we cannot stop all work to correct that. People, including the media, must get their information from scientists, doctors, and regulated government sites. We also can’t compromise patient confidentiality. As I said, our doors are open. We also commit to answering five written questions sent to us under the ambit of the Media Association of T&T, and taking additional questions on a dedicated email.

I say to journalists in mainstream and non-traditional media, let’s work together to provide accurate fact and science-based information to the public so the country can get back on its feet.

Minister of Health and CMO interviewed by Ira Mathur.