By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis yesterday revealed the government plans to use technology to track people in quarantine and to impose severe punishment on those breaking isolation rules. In a wide-ranging speech in the assembly he also outlined steps to gradually reopen the country and to bring home Bahamians stuck abroad.
Breaking quarantine could result in a $20,000 fine or up to five years in prison, or both, he said. He also touted statistical analysis suggesting the country’s drastic social distancing rules have reduced the number of deaths and confirmed COVID-19 cases which would have otherwise occurred by now.
His communication came before Parliament passed a resolution to extend his 24-hour curfew and restrictions until May 30.
Citing information provided by Dr Merceline Dahl-Regis, coordinator of the country’s COVID-19 response, Dr Minnis said the health team has worked with experts to show that after restrictive measures were imposed, the country averted at least 23 cases by April 9 and prevented what would have been 33 percent more deaths by that date.
“What they’re saying is that the measures we implemented were working and are working and have reduced the number of infected cases by 36 percent,” he said.
“The aforementioned estimated reduction of 23 new cases translates into an estimated reduction of four deaths over this past week. This death reduction estimate is based on the country’s fatality record of eight deaths per 41 confirmed cases. Without the social distancing measures, we estimate the country would have recorded 12 deaths by Day 27. These unrealised deaths represent a 33 percent reduction in the number of estimated COVID-19 related deaths by Day 27. Further, the reduction of 23 cases indicates a reduction in the case load for the doctors and hospital resources, and demand for beds.”
Health officials have been pressed in recent weeks on the strength of their oversight of people in quarantine and isolation.
Dr Minnis said: “Health officials have repeatedly noted that a number of those who should remain in quarantine or isolation at home are not doing so, which could result in greater spread of the virus.”
To address the problem, Dr Minnis said an app will be used to collect anonymous data that will ensure people’s privacy is respected.
“It is envisaged that through the simple action of downloading an app, quarantined and isolated individuals could use their cellphones in a manner similar to a walkie-talkie,” he said, adding they could connect instantly with care agents, send an emergency assist alert for rapid response and talk to family and friends in a secure space with the touch of a single button.
The prime minister revealed his emergency orders have been amended to ensure those who break quarantine are fined up to $20,000, face five years imprisonment or both.
“You break quarantine, we lock you up,” he said.
As for Bahamians struck abroad, Dr Minnis said officials are finalising details to ensure they are brought home and kept in a designated quarantine facility guarded by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force.
“I know that this has placed a burden on some Bahamians overseas,” he said. “I understand the frustration and worry of their families here at home. In keeping with the protocols of other countries, the government is finalising plans to secure a mandatory quarantine facility to accommodate the return of a number of Bahamians in the United States to New Providence.
“At present there are 200 Bahamians who want to return home during the lockdown of our borders and we are finalising plans to bring those individuals home. I advise all those individuals who want to travel home that they should contact the consul general in Miami so they can be informed as to when they can be brought home.”
Warning that COVID-19 will be with the country for the foreseeable future - even as numbers of cases stabilise and decline - Dr Minnis said his National COVID-19 Coordination Committee has began planning for the gradual reopening of the country, a process they surmise will culminate in the resumption of international travel and full operation of hotels.
According to their plan, the country is currently in phase 1a: essential businesses, hardware, auto parts stores and nurseries are opened, some for just two days per week; NGOs are providing food to the needy with permission and people can exercise for 90 minutes in their neighbourhood from Monday to Friday.
During phase 1b, there could be a relaxation of restrictions on exercise and hardware, nurseries and auto parts stores can expand to five-day online delivery and curb-side services.
During phase two, there could be even further relaxation on exercises and worship services could be permitted with strict social distancing rules and use of masks. Business operations in Family Islands that have not recorded a COVID-19 case could resume during this phase and there could be the resumption of healthcare and manufacturing industry services that can develop protocols to maintain social distancing.
In phase three there would be restriction reopening for non-essential stores, limited education services, relaxation of limits on weddings, funerals and social gatherings, reopening of parks and beaches with social distancing.
During the fourth phase, the government could allow restaurants, cultural facilities, gyms, movie theatres and entertainment faculties to operate with social distancing protocols and masks while resuming office operations and personal services such as hair care and nails with the use of personal protection equipment.
During the fifth phase, international travel can resume, hotels can fully operate along with public transportation and a general lift on movement.
Although he presented the reopening chart, Dr Minnis noted it is subject to change.