In the same week that Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis declared that the COVID-19 pandemic is over for the vaccinated, Minister of Health Renward Wells announced a rollback of perks previously granted for vaccinated individuals in The Bahamas, including the decision to now limit to five the number of vaccinated individuals allowed at a private gathering.
And that’s for all islands of The Bahamas, including those that have not had any confirmed COVID-19 cases in months.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Pearl McMillan reported at a Ministry of Health press conference on Friday that it had been 323 days since the last positive case was confirmed on Acklins; 315 days since the last case on Mayaguana; 92 days since the last case on Crooked Island; 49 days since the last case on Long Island; 45 days since the last case on Cat Island; 41 days since the last case on the Berry Islands; 31 days since the last case on Inagua and 30 days since the last case on San Salvador.
This is the kind of decision that makes us question whether the authorities are using actual data to craft their response to the COVID-19 surge, which is primarily limited to New Providence and Grand Bahama.
Minnis’ declaration about the pandemic being over for the vaccinated came at the start of last week even as the case numbers were rising sharply, deaths were increasing and Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) was buckling from the demands placed on it by a vicious third wave.
Up to the time of the prime minister’s statement on July 19, officials had confirmed 950 cases for the month. For the entire month of June, we had 871 cases.
Since the prime minister’s statement, officials have confirmed around 600 cases, bringing to 1,592 the number of confirmed cases so far this month (up to Monday), exceeding the 1,345 cases confirmed in May, which had been the worst month for COVID cases in 2021 prior to July.
It was apparent to many watching the Ministry of Health’s press conference on Friday that officials had put together a rushed response to the crisis. Incredibly, it had been more than three months since such a press conference was held and critical information on contact tracing, clusters, etc. was glaringly absent.
We understand that there were many cases, including deaths, connected to a recent church event. When asked about this yesterday, Wells had no comment.
Quite telling, but typical of the level of secrecy and withholding of information that has characterized this government’s and health officials’ response to the pandemic.
The narrative from the prime minister and the minister of health in recent weeks had been that we were moving toward the complete end of the state of emergency and Minnis had announced certain benefits for those vaccinated, including the freedom to have and attend social gatherings so long as all are vaccinated.
“Party on!” is what the prime minister urged just one month ago. The message there was that vaccinated individuals posed no threat to the continuation of a crisis that has upended our very existence over the last 16 months.
At the time, the prime minister announced that vaccinated individuals (no limit in numbers) can attend private gatherings in homes and elsewhere once all attendees are vaccinated.
He said Junkanoo groups and other bands are permitted to perform once all members are vaccinated.
Last Monday, Minnis said, “The vaccinated individuals are now out of the pandemic. The pandemic is finished for the vaccinated individuals.”
This was reckless messaging as the experts have repeatedly said that vaccinated individuals could still get and spread COVID-19.
It is why the United States still requires that everyone be tested for COVID-19 prior to entering that country regardless of vaccination status. This is the case even though the US president and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both also said the pandemic is over for the vaccinated.
Yesterday, the CDC changed its masking recommendations in response to the Delta variant of COVID-19.
The CDC said individuals in areas that have high or substantial transmission should resume wearing masks indoors. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the Delta variant behaves “uniquely different” from past strains of the virus.
The rollback of relaxed measures for vaccinated individuals in The Bahamas days after that statement from Minnis, and other areas of inconsistency and illogic in the new restrictions, demonstrate once again that the government has put little thought into and has applied little or no science in determining how to respond to this latest wave of coronavirus.
Ministry of Health officials, meanwhile, seem concerned with aligning their public messaging and advice to fit the narrative of the political directorate.
Asked whether the government should realistically consider transporting Bahamians to Florida via cruise ships to get vaccinated given that that could be a super spreader event, McMillan, the chief medical officer, appeared to be struggling to answer, no doubt mindful that the prime minister recently said this is something the government was planning.
“The suggestion that it may be a super spreader event, I guess that is so. However, if the necessary public health measures are actually implemented, there is a possibility that we will not move in the direction of a super spreader event,” she said.
Asked whether health officials think the state of emergency should be extended beyond August 13, McMillan said, “Should the EOC (Emergency Operations Centre) be tasked with that consideration we would make an appropriate recommendation.”
Asked what the justification is for allowing vaccinated travelers to enter The Bahamas without prior testing given that even vaccinated individuals could catch and spread COVID, McMillan threw it to Minister of Health Renward Wells, who said, “I think it has to do with the risk profile and the assessment of the risk.
“Obviously, those who are vaccinated, they can still contract COVID. I believe that the likelihood of them contracting it is much less probable than those who are not vaccinated.
“At the end of the day, we are going to continue to have the antigen test, so that once you come into country if you would have stayed beyond the five days, you are still required to take the rapid antigen test so we can avail ourselves as to whether or not you are positive for COVID.”
But the fifth-day antigen test is not required for the vaccinated; it is required for the unvaccinated. The minister ought to know he was being misleading.
In addition to the United States, a number of countries in our region also have a testing requirement for travelers. These include Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos and others.
Allowing vaccinated individuals to enter The Bahamas untested is not a risk we should be taking at this time, especially since Florida is an important tourism market for The Bahamas, and, according to the CDC, Florida currently leads the United States in new infections. It accounts for one-in-five new cases in the country.
Under the new measures to fight COVID, funerals are permitted at the graveside only. Cremation services are permitted outdoors and are limited to one hour. These services are limited to 30 people, excluding the officiant and funeral home workers. Repasts are not permitted.
Weddings, however, are permitted indoors or outdoors with 30 people. Wedding receptions are permitted provided that they are held outdoors and are limited to 30 people.
It is not known why the competent authority has chosen to allow weddings and regular church services indoors, but to prohibit funerals from taking place indoors. It is also not known why he permits wedding receptions, but bans repasts.
Minnis attempted to explain this last year, saying that it is because people tend to express more emotions at funerals than they do during regular services.
Under the new order, religious worship services are limited to one hour and the capacity of the religious facility is limited to 33 percent of the facility.
The prime minister here was obviously seeking to avoid backlash from churches as experienced last year when he closed them entirely to in-person service, but he is getting pushback from the Bahamas Christian Council with its president, Bishop Delton Fernander, questioning whether the coronavirus shows up at services after an hour.
The announcement on Friday also drew criticism and defiance from Minnis’ own appointee, Minister Kevin Harris, director of Bahamas Information Services, who declared on his Facebook page: “As pastor I will determine how long my sermon will run. There is no limit on how long I can worship God.”
Harris also posted: “If there is no limit on how long you can be in the number house, there should be no limit on how long I can be in the Lord’s House.”
The announcement via press release and in the amended emergency order late Sunday night that “no person shall host or attend a summer camp” caught many off guard and did not provide any notice to parents or operators of such camps as the amendment took effect at 5 a.m. on Monday.
It left many working parents scrambling to figure out what to do with their children on Monday.
It is illogical that outdoor camps are banned, but movie theaters, which are indoors, may still operate.
The emergency order now prohibits spas from operating, including for massages, waxing, threading and facials. This is discriminatory given that hair and nail salons may operate. With the exception of facials, the other spa services could be performed with the client wearing a mask, so it is not clear why the competent authority targeted spas.
Spas are the only businesses completely shut down by the new order. This makes no sense. One spa operator on Monday called on the competent authority to release data showing that spas were leading to increased cases.
On Monday, talk show host Zhivargo Laing also called on the government to present rationale for public policy so people could understand policy.
“Understanding promotes compliance and cooperation,” Laing accurately observed.
It is unacceptable that the government is discriminating against primarily Bahamian business people who operate spas while allowing spas to operate at hotels. If the concern is to keep Bahamians out of spas, that does not solve the problem as they could still use hotel spas.
In what is likely a response to weeks of criticisms over political parties campaigning in large groups, the new order now limits campaign teams to no more than five fully vaccinated individuals. One candidate told us Friday that the vast majority of his campaign workers are not vaccinated.
We know, too, that some candidates have openly stated they are not vaccinated, among them Wayne Munroe, QC, the Progressive Liberal Party’s candidate for Free Town.
It will be interesting to see if, and how, this measure will be enforced.
Many of us are waiting to hear what the prime minister will say when he speaks to the nation tonight.
We do not expect a full lockdown as we saw at different points last year when case numbers, hospitalizations and COVID deaths were much lower. A source close to Minnis said he will not risk crippling the economy once again.
We expect the prime minister’s focus to be on urging more Bahamians to get vaccinated. Perhaps he has promising news regarding the efforts to get vaccines in-country.
The government has been silent on why it has refused to allow reputable private suppliers to bring in vaccines under strict guidelines.
Of course, the issue of vaccine hesitancy remains a major one. The government ought not force people to take experimental vaccines, but the messaging surrounding vaccines must be improved.
At the press conference on Friday, Dr. Nikkiah Forbes, director of the National HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Programme, who has emerged as among the most trusted figures in this crisis, reported that data from Princess Margaret Hospital showed that no fully vaccinated individual had been hospitalized or died from COVID.
Vaccines are critical as our healthcare system is collapsing around us.
Yesterday, we asked another prominent and respected Bahamian physician – who asked not to be named so as to avoid the shooting of the messenger and the ignoring of the message – what the solution is to our current crisis.
He responded: Lay down the swords. Actually listen to the healthcare teams and invite them to participate in the decision making. Eliminate the arbitrary rules that engender civil disobedience. Share the data on which decisions are being made. Eliminate indoor carousing. The social distancing has to restart.
The physician went further: Test everyone. At least make antigen testing free. Create and empower a think tank that represents Bahamians to feed information. Allow private sector participation in sourcing vaccines. Use the trusted providers to vaccinate, and educate.
Give nurses a 25 percent scarcity allowance across the board. Set a minimum daily threshold to achieve no more than a five percent positivity rate. Establish a field hospital to centralize COVID care.
What needs to be added, and what is perhaps among the most difficult to achieve, is the need for personal responsibility among Bahamians.
We await the competent authority’s speech tonight.
We pray that he will finally see pass ego, put politics on hold and recognize there are others outside his political orbit who could help steer us out of this crisis.
Failure would doom all Bahamians, no matter their political affiliation.