Preparing for a fourth wave

With the holiday season comes increased travel, widespread social gatherings, and more time spent indoors in close proximity to one another.

These conditions typically contribute to an increase in the spread of respiratory illnesses during the colder months, and SARS-CoV-2 once again appears to be no exception.

Health professionals are sounding the alarm on the likelihood of a fourth wave here in The Bahamas, not unlike their warnings issued last holiday season when a lull in cases and hospitalizations prompted incautiousness among some.

Even as calls to guard against the emergence of a fourth wave ramp up, there remain protocol loopholes and areas of deficiency in mitigation strategies that ought to be shored up to minimize the impact of what could potentially be the importation of new COVID variants as holiday travel increases.

Testing remains integral in the management of the pandemic, and according to Press Secretary Clint Watson, free nationwide testing is expected to begin “some time in the first quarter of next year”, adding that the administration is not pleased with the current status of the country’s contact tracing system that goes hand in hand with a free testing initiative.

Over the last several days, an uptick in confirmed cases and hospitalizations on New Providence has been reported via the Ministry of Health’s daily dashboard, though no information has been given on what accounts for the bump in numbers.

We hope to see free testing and a sufficiently strengthened contact tracing regime expedited, since the implementation of the same occurring “some time in the first quarter” of 2022, could conceivably occur as late as March.

Current COVID health rules permit 24-hour travelers to return to The Bahamas without a negative COVID test, with no requirement on the part of such travelers to submit to follow-up testing.

Where follow-up testing for travel in excess of 24 hours is mandated in the rules, the same is only required for those who are not fully vaccinated.

Both protocols have the potential to put health professionals and government at a disadvantage in early response to the spread of the virus, because they exempt travelers from pre-testing, or from follow-up testing based on vaccination status.

If vaccinated travelers and residents are rarely tested based on current testing requirements, hard data on the incidence of infection within this subset of the population cannot be garnered.

Stating that the country’s third wave is at its end, Director of the National HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Programme Dr. Nikkiah Forbes stressed the value of universal mask-wearing, noting, “We need everybody to wear a mask properly fitting over the nose, mouth, and chin with a well-woven material. Masks can cut down on the incidence of COVID by 53 percent.”

It is still common to see individuals wearing ill-fitting and, therefore, ineffective masks; and now that bans on the bulk importation of face masks have been lifted, universal mask-wearing buttressed by nationwide access to surgical and non-surgical multi-ply face masks ought to be pursued.

Coronaviruses mutate frequently, and as vaccination rates increase worldwide, researchers are continuing to monitor the emergence of new COVID variants.

The delta-plus variant is now said to have been identified in at least 42 countries, with approximately 93 percent of all cases having been identified in Britain.

According to a BBC report yesterday, a new “heavily mutated variant”, B.1.1.529 identified in South Africa, is raising concern regarding its potential virulence, and its impact on the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.

A marked increase in vaccinations spurred by travel policies for entrance into the United States, has given way to a concerning reduction in the rate of COVID vaccination locally.

Health and Wellness Minister Dr. Michael Darville said government is looking at “innovative ways” to boost vaccination rates.

Sustained education is likely to produce more lasting results than periodic incentives which do not address the resident fears and concerns Bahamians have about vaccination against COVID-19.

We, therefore, encourage government to make good on its pledge to carry out a nationwide educational campaign for COVID vaccination.

And we encourage all residents to diligently follow the health protocols.

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