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The health minister has confirmed that screening has begun at the Piarco International Airport and the ANR Robinson International Airport as the first line of defence against the deadly coronavirus

If you are travelling to this country from the United States or the Asian continent, then prepare to be screened.

Minister of Health, Terrence Deyalsingh, has confirmed that screening has begun at the Piarco International Airport and the ANR Robinson International Airport as the first line of defence against the deadly coronavirus—2019 NCOV—which first presented in Wuhan, China.

The health minister says even though chances of the virus reaching our shores are very slim, there is still reason for concern and he is urging the population to think twice before travelling to the Asian continent.

Screening at ports of entry activated

Minister Deyalsingh says an emergency meeting was held with the Chief Medical Officer and the head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) on Sunday as the threat of the coronavirus intensified. He reports that coming out of that meeting was a decision to ramp up screening at all ports of entry, especially of travellers from North America, the United Kingdom and Panama.

“If via thermal screening or the pilot alerts us that someone is ill, then that person will be pulled aside and questioned. Their travel history will be taken and so on,” he explains. “If it is determined that this person poses a risk, then they will be selected for further attention and possible quarantining and isolation, as well as contact tracing. That is, all the persons around that person on the aircraft, they will also be pulled aside.”

The minister is asking citizens to help with the screening process, as well, encouraging them to pay close attention to relatives and friends who may have fallen sick after returning from abroad.

“If you know a visitor has recently come down here, and you know they have recently vacationed in China or South Korea, and they have fallen ill, you are to take them to a doctor and have them reported.”

Minister Deyalsingh also assures that more resources have been put into the Caura Hospital’s Isolation Unit.

CARICOM must develop a regional response

Coronavirus 2019-NCOV, a cousin of the SARS virus, has infected hundreds since the outbreak in China last December. Nine people have died thus far, and there are at least 440 confirmed cases. As of today, the virus, which originated in China, has had cases come up In Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The first case in the United States was announced on Monday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has offered guidance to countries on how they can prepare for it. The organization’s officials are meeting, today—Wednesday 22 January 2020—to consider declaring an international public health emergency, just as it did with Swine Flu and Ebola.

But, while it is important to prepare on a national level, Minister Deyalsingh says there is need for a regional alert system. He intends to take a note to Cabinet suggesting to the Prime Minister that it should be tabled on CARICOM’s agenda, and a coordinated approach and effective regional response can be developed.

“In 2009 you had the global pandemic of H1N1 where thousands of people died, internationally and locally,” the minister points out. “Then in 2012, you had Chik-V. Then under my tenure you had Zika, and you always have the Influenza virus. And now we have this. I think the time has come for the Caribbean to have a coordinated warning system,” he asserts, “just like you have a warning system for bad weather, or for crime, to warn the country. So, I will be taking a note to Cabinet within the next two weeks, hopefully.”

Asked whether the government will consider initiating a travel ban to certain parts of the world, the minister had this to say:

“Under international health rules, if you do a travel ban the world economy will collapse. If I had to go to China now, on a personal level, I will re-evaluate,” he admits. “I will exercise my own personal judgement.”

T&T preparing for outbreak

The health minister has given assurances that the public health sector is preparing itself for any possible outbreak of 2019-NCOV here at home. He also urges the public to take seriously any signs of fever, and go to their doctor or to the health centre.

“Have your doctor make a clinical judgement as to whether you are suffering from a viral illness or a bacterial illness,” he advises. “If it is viral, is it the common cold? Is it H1N1? Is it possibly this new coronavirus? That is what the population will have to do.”

Minister Deyalsingh says citizens must also take basic precautions such as hand-washing and covering one’s mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. He also advises parents to keep their children at home if they have fallen ill, to avoid them spreading their illness to other children at school or the nursery.

The minister also advises adults who have fallen ill with the virus to stay at home and avoid going to work, to ensure they don’t spread it to their colleagues.

Story by BAVITA GOPAULCHAN & JESSIE-MAY VENTOUR