A risky state of denial

Were it not for an apparently imminent general election, government’s state of inertia in response to surging COVID-19 cases would arguably not be taking place.

That inertia is happening at a tenuous time where surges in deadly variant cases mount in the United States, and where a marked increase in hospitalizations and a troubling spike in confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths, warrant more than wishful thinking.

Despite government assurances that are noticeably disparate from the alarm being sounded by healthcare professionals, cumulative cases nationwide continue to steadily increase, and incident cases in the nation’s capital are on a sustained upward trend.

Three confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 10 under investigation were reported this month, added to a previous 15 investigated cases still unclassified since last year.

A review of Ministry of Health statistics reveals that The Bahamas is averaging a 10.2 percent positivity rate in April, with a high of 34.4 percent on April 12, and a low of 4.6 percent on April 4 and April 8.

April’s positivity rate is twice the World Health Organization’s threshold of a five percent rate for at least a two-week period to warrant relaxed restrictions.

According to the ministry’s data presented during its press conference on April 7, the country’s COVID-19 reproduction number (R naught) – an indicator of how contagious the virus is – rose to above 3 in March.

A reproduction number of less than 1 indicates that an infectious disease is on the decline, and a number greater than 1 indicates that an outbreak or epidemic may exist.

New Providence recorded 65 cases in the first week of April, jumping to 196 cases the following week – an over 200 percent increase in a seven-day period.

Grand Bahama’s April cases week-on-week saw an increase of 26 percent, from 31 to 39 cases.

New Providence’s hospitalizations are up 51 percent since April 1, prompting Princess Margaret Hospital to reopen its 28-bed Pathogens Unit, and there has been a 67 percent decrease in hospitalizations over the same period on Grand Bahama, whose sole hospital has not yet returned to full operation since September 2019.

Genomic sequencing to determine the presence of COVID-19 variants first began in early March with 52 samples sent to Brazil for analysis, but with only 54 percent of those samples determined viable for sequencing.

Given the current surge and the number of imported cases recorded in New Providence and Eleuthera, we question government’s sampling rationale in sending only 11 new samples for testing to the Caribbean Public Health Agency headquartered in Trinidad – five from Grand Bahama, three from New Providence, two from Abaco and one from Bimini.

Health Minister Renward Wells sought this week to downplay the surge in the capital by indicating that some days in April recorded lower numbers than on other days, though on examination, those lower numbers coincide with the month’s lowest testing days.

The country’s positivity rate and its reproductive number – the latter, which soared prior to the Easter holiday – belie Wells’ suggestion that the current surge is due merely to holiday gatherings, now a thing of the past.

And though Wells argues that surges on various islands do not warrant new restrictions, he has failed to conversely explain why Abaco remains under tightened restrictions even though, according to the country’s chief medical officer, its cases have shown “a consistent downward trend”.

Pointing to the value of vaccination efforts, Wells highlighted reductions in incident cases in Israel and the UK.

Israel has fully vaccinated 56 percent of its eligible population, compared to The Bahamas’ single-dose administration to approximately five percent of adults.

And notably, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cautioned this week that it was a recent three-month lockdown, and not the UK’s vaccination program, that caused a steep drop in COVID-19 deaths, stating that cases would increase once restrictions relax.

Whether through a liberalization of its free testing protocol, targeted restrictions it claims have worked in the past, or a combination of both, it would be otherwise irresponsible for government to act as though the country is not entering a third wave.

To so act is to engage in a risky state of denial.

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