The absence of critical details

A new minister of health was formally appointed yesterday on the same day The Bahamas recorded its highest number of COVID-19 cases since its first case was confirmed on March 15.

The rapid increase in the number of cases is alarming, especially for Grand Bahama, where 51 of the 70 cases recorded in The Bahamas since July 8, have been confirmed.

Prior to July 8, there had not been a confirmed COVID-19 case on Grand Bahama since May 5.

Between June 15 and July 7, no new cases were confirmed in The Bahamas.

Of the 70 new cases, 17 were New Providence residents and two were Inagua residents, who had traveled to the United States and were said to be on New Providence.

Yesterday, 21 new cases were confirmed.

The day before, 15 new cases were reported.

While it is understandable that the increased numbers of daily confirmed cases will challenge the COVID-19 task force in providing timely and detailed information on each case, we note a worrying trend of a declining quality of data in recent days.

In its press release yesterday, the Ministry of Health said, “Further details of the 21 additional cases were unable to be confirmed at the time of the release of this report. Investigations are ongoing, and a complete update of details will be published at a later date.”

There was also no breakdown of the ages of the 21 people who tested positive.

The day before, the Ministry of Health said travel details for 11 of the 15 cases reported that day “were unable to be confirmed at the time of the release of this report”.

All of those 11 cases for which there were no travel details were confirmed on Grand Bahama, which appears set for a lockdown starting Friday.

Only three of the 51 cases on that island have been reported to have a history of travel. Again, there is no travel information for many of those cases.

In his national address on Sunday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis noted that the increase in cases coincided with the reinstitution of international flights and passenger sea transport.

“Regrettably, surveillance teams have traced many of the cases to Bahamians returning to The Bahamas,” Minnis said.

But the data being provided to the public does not clearly provide this travel information.

The Ministry of Health has promised to provide travel information in respect of 32 cases in the last two days.

Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar told reporters yesterday that the increase is “domestic grown” and suggested the government was not strict enough on Bahamians going in and out of the country.

“From the evidence that I have right now in front of me, I have no known cases by foreign visitors coming into the country. They were all following the protocols, getting the COVID-19 tests; we were screening them before they came. So, I think that was working well,” D’Aguilar said.

The competent authority has closed the country’s borders to international commercial travel except for travel from Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union, as of tomorrow.

This will have a significant negative impact on an economy already in dire straits.

The decision was made even as Minnis and D’Aguilar both suggested that travel by locals, and not tourists, was the cause of the spike.

D’Aguilar seems to be acknowledging that the decision by Minnis to allow Bahamians traveling for less than 72 hours to return without being tested has played a key role in this second wave.

Based on what we have heard from the prime minister and the minister of tourism, that policy decision was a mistake.

We note, too, that there has been a sharp increase in the number of tests conducted. On Sunday, the Ministry of Health reported that 2,645 tests were conducted.

The number was up to 3,672 yesterday. One is left to assume that the tests carried out by private healthcare facilities conducting testing is included in that number.

When we inquired yesterday about the big jump in the number of tests, we were told by Bahamas Information Services, which sends out the ministry’s daily releases, “…Your inquiries were brought to the attention of Ministry of health reps. They took note but offered no further info at the moment.”

When we asked about the travel pending details of the cases before Monday, we were told the information was “not available at this juncture”.

Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis recently stepped down as head of the COVID-19 task force. We hope her departure is not connected to this declining quality of critical data connected to COVID-19 in The Bahamas.

It is time for health officials to call another press conference. Key questions need to be answered, including whether the Grand Bahama cases are clusters or whether community spread is underway.

Timely and transparent information is critical in any crisis.

Such information is also important in getting buy-in from the public for the various policies and restrictions that have been announced to address the surge of cases we are currently experiencing.

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