Don’t let healthcare workers down

When the global race to contain COVID-19 began, the overarching mantra was that healthcare workers are the frontline soldiers in the pandemic response, and must be protected in both their interest and in the interest of healthcare worldwide.

In the initial phases of the government’s response, Bahamians and residents were assured that decisions would be based on the advice of our health professionals.

Working with guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) and evaluating implications of published research, our health professionals are well suited to be among the leading voices of advice on how best to protect their sector and the nation from the threat of COVID-19.

A troubling sign that the views of these professionals were not being heard came through a recent press release by the Consultant Physicians Staff Association (CPSA), not only calling for the testing of visitors when borders open in July, but requesting “open and collaborative dialogues” with Minister of Health and Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis.

The implication of this is key for the country’s healthcare workers who, by virtue of their work in the pandemic, face a disproportionately high level of risk compared to the general population.

Previous Ministry of Health COVID-19 press conferences revealed that the country’s healthcare workers were becoming infected with COVID-19 at a rate well above the regional average, for reasons that were said to be under investigation.

COVID-19 claimed one of this country’s foremost medical experts in the person of Dr. Judson Eneas, sickened doctors and nurses and put scores of healthcare workers into self-isolation due to exposure to the virus.

And though the disease is currently less deadly than initially feared, The Bahamas’ mortality rate for COVID-19 has ranked more than double that of member states of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA).

The reasons for this have not been disclosed.

On the heels of pressure from medical professionals and the public, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar announced to Parliament yesterday that tourists will now have to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the country.

No details were provided on the protocol and how the policy will be managed, given D’Aguilar’s prior media statement that the airline industry was not prepared to check the COVID-19 status of travelers.

And it is unknown whether the advice of health professionals was sought on the viability of rapid PCR or rapid antigen tests for travelers upon entry.

He told parliamentarians, “When we made our initial decision, evidence supported the opening of the tourism sector without the test.”

That evidence was not cited, and is questionable, given that the COVID-19 outbreak is not yet under control in our largest tourism market of the United States, and that more and more countries around the world are requiring that tourists test negative for the disease.

Evidence that residents are losing their appetite for caution now that the economy has reopened, meanwhile, could spell greater risks for healthcare workers; risks that may be compounded as the country prepares to welcome guests from COVID-19 hotspots.

More and more are out and about without masks and are gathering in large groups — the apparent psychology being that the opening of the country signals the eradication of COVID-19’s threat.

Residents are no longer being given regular public reminders on how to interact with medical facilities in the event they may be symptomatic, which could put healthcare workers and medical staff at higher risk of exposure from patients.

The health ministry’s COVID-19 virtual call center and 511 information number were decommissioned, again sending a no doubt unintended message to the public that caution in presenting to health facilities is no longer necessary.

Opening our borders, necessary as it is for the economy, presents the single greatest policy risk for healthcare workers since the start of the pandemic response.

The results of investigations into the cause of high infection rates among our healthcare workers have not been disclosed, nor has information on steps taken to address potential deficiencies in existing safety protocols.

The country’s latest COVID-19 case is of a resident with a history of travel.

Johns Hopkins University data as of yesterday stated that 10 U.S. states including Florida are seeing their highest seven-day average of new infections since the start of the pandemic.

We are facing a pivotal period for healthcare and for the safety of our healthcare workers.

We cannot afford to let them down.

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