The end of the second wave of COVID-19 in The Bahamas late last year and the arrival of a vaccine in country – though a limited amount and though fraught with safety concerns – gave many of us a sense of relief and increased our hopes that we will be able to return to some normalcy in a few months.
But it is clear from the latest spike in cases that our problems with COVID-19 remain grave.
Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis, special health advisor to the prime minister, succinctly outlined the state of affairs at a press conference called yesterday to provide an update on the vaccination program.
To date, 21,907 doses of the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine have been administered at vaccination sites and by mobile units across New Providence, Grand Bahama, Eleuthera and Abaco, Dahl-Regis advised.
But she said, “At this time, vaccinations alone will not get us out of this pandemic. We must simultaneously address the increase in cases, the identification of resistant strains and adherence to the public health measures if we are to win this race and return to a sense of normalcy.”
Her comment underscored the need for all stakeholders – government, health authorities and members of the public – to act to address what has now been identified as a third wave of COVID-19 in The Bahamas.
But pandemic fatigue, vaccine hesitancy and the very limited availability of a vaccine appear to be hampering efforts to beat back COVID.
The first and second waves nearly crippled our economy and placed unprecedented demands on our healthcare system.
So far, The Bahamas has recorded 9,800 cases. We have had 194 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths. Twenty-six deaths are under investigation.
Between November and February, our case numbers were significantly lower than they were over several months prior to that period.
In a national address in January, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis recognized the progress the country had made in getting COVID-19 under control.
He declared, “The end is in sight.”
“Restrictions will end. We will get back to our way of life. Jobs and the economy are coming back,” said Minnis, who added that we still had some months to go as the pandemic continued to rage in countries around the word.
Later that month, while seeking parliamentary approval to extend the state of emergency, the prime minister praised his government’s efforts to fight the pandemic.
He said, “The policies my government advanced these 10-plus months have worked to beat back waves of the virus and save Bahamians. As a result, our country is currently one of the countries doing better from a health perspective.”
In Parliament in March, Minnis again patted himself and his government on the back as he announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States was moving The Bahamas from a level three travel health notice to a less serious level two.
But the CDC is now again advising travelers to avoid The Bahamas because there is a very high level of COVID-19 in the country. The agency moved The Bahamas back to a level four health advisory this week.
Cases have climbed steadily in recent weeks.
In January, we recorded 336 new cases.
In February, we recorded 335 cases.
In March, we recorded 613 cases.
There have been 629 new COVID-19 cases between April 1 and April 19.
Dahl-Regis said yesterday new infections are being driven by international travel and a relaxed adherence to the health guidelines.
Asked whether there is community spread and whether there are any identified clusters, she said, “When we look at the contact tracing, we look for the clusters, and as I say, they are travel related. That work is ongoing.
“I’m hoping that at the next press conference they’ll be able to give details of the various clusters, but as I understand it, we’re not saying that there’s community spread at this time.”
She noted too, “the emergence of variant strains of COVID-19 is of significant concern”.
These variants spread more easily and are infecting younger age groups.
Dahl-Regis advised that local health authorities have been actively monitoring genomic testing from March 13 to April 17.
“The results, as reported by the National Reference Lab, are showing evidence of an increasing number of genomic deletions,” she added.
“This is indicative of variant strains.”
Now that officials have formally acknowledged we are in a third wave, what must be done to flatten the curve?
In January, the prime minister said his government knew what to do to get results.
“Through our experience during the pandemic year, we now know the formula that works. Tough times do not scare us. Difficult circumstances do not break our resolve,” he said.
Just over a week ago, Minnis advised there were no plans to increase restrictions in response to rising case numbers.
The prime minister is fully aware that many in the business community have a low appetite for the kinds of restrictions that brought economic activity to a near halt in 2020.
This is also political season and Minnis is no doubt more conscious of the need to balance the most important need to save lives against the need to safeguard livelihoods.
Dahl-Regis said yesterday, “We must return to heightened surveillance and contact tracing if we are going to win this race in the shortest period of time.”
She advised that because the cases had been so few “it wasn’t necessary to accelerate the contact tracing until now [that] we are in the surge”.
“And we have called back all those persons who helped us bring the pandemic to under 10 new cases a day to come back and help us,” Dahl-Regis said.
She also told reporters, “As we say, this is a race. If we vaccinate many people, at the same time we accelerate the contact tracing and we practice the public health measures, we are optimistic or we’re hoping that we will see a plateau effect, that we begin in a short period of time to see the hospitalizations leveling off or decreasing.”
The prime minister has repeatedly said that his decisions on restrictive measures in response to the pandemic are guided by the advice of the health officials.
However, Dahl-Regis yesterday shied away from saying whether she thinks these measures need to be tightened. She said that would be a decision the competent authority will make.
She did say though, “the restrictive measures that we currently have need to be strongly enforced”.
The prime minister is expected to address this worsening situation in Parliament today. Many will be listening to hear whether he implements the formula he said has worked previously.
Whatever the competent authority decides, there must be buy in from the public to address the case surge.
Many, however, have had enough of COVID, enough of not enjoying their lives as they once did, and so they are disregarding health protocols, thereby prolonging the pandemic.
We are all fatigued, but we must all remain committed to moving our country beyond this dark and harrowing period.