By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE detection of new and more infectious COVID-19 variant strains in the country could lead to “serious implications” that could potentially impact the national vaccination campaign, a senior physician warned yesterday.
Head of the Consultant Physician Staff Association, Dr Sabriquet Pinder-Butler yesterday called the possible emergence of variant strains in The Bahamas a concerning matter that could result in a worsening health crisis.
She spoke after health officials revealed in a press conference on Tuesday that positive test results reported by the National Reference Lab “are showing evidence of an increasing number of genomic deletions”, which indicates that COVID mutations are present in the country.
Dozens of countries worldwide have detected the new strains first found in the UK, Brazil and South Africa.
On Tuesday, health officials also reported that the recent spike in cases is being driven by international travel and a relaxed adherence to the current health protocols.
Yesterday, Dr Pinder-Butler said: “It is something that is concerning because if you are able to pick up COVID more easier, it means that it could be spread easier and so as compared to the first or second wave when we might not have had the variants before and we know how our numbers increased, certainly if we have one that is more contagious or deadly, it could have serious implications for us as a country.
“We may have more people with COVID and we may have more people who may not do well from it and we may lose lives and so that’s concerning.”
The variant strains have all raised concerns about the vaccine’s effectiveness against the mutations given limited data on the matter, a situation Dr Butler said officials would have to closely look at.
Last month, the country began vaccinating its citizens against the COVID threat after receiving its first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine—first from the Indian government and then the World Health Organisation’s COVAX Facility. About 22,000 people are said to have been vaccinated with their first shot to date.
“When we talk about the impact of the variants on the vaccine itself, certainly we find that we have a variant that may not lend itself as it relates to the vaccine in particular being as effective and helping to have milder (symptoms). It might now mean that that committee has to look at what might potentially be another alternative for the country’s (vaccination programme), so I think those things become important to consider.”
Speaking in the House of Assembly yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced several eased travel restrictions for people who have been fully vaccinated.
For example, starting May 1, people travelling to The Bahamas will no longer have to take a RT-PCR COVID test provided they are fully vaccinated and have passed a two-week period.
Speaking on the matter yesterday, Dr Pinder-Butler said she didn’t know if she would have made such a recommendation to the Prime Minister given the rising number of cases in the country—some of which have been linked to travel—and the fact that vaccinated people can still contract the virus.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention notes that vaccine “breakthrough cases” occur in only a small percentage of fully vaccinated persons. As of April 13, 2021, more than 75 million people in the United States had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 since December 14, 2020.
“During the same time, CDC received 5,814 reports of vaccine breakthrough infections from 43 US states and territories,” the CDC states on its website.
Meanwhile, the CPSA president stressed that the COVID-19 preventive measures in place are there to protect us and also urged people to follow the current health rules.
“I think it’s important for us to put things in context,” she said. “So, yes, recommendations may be there that speaks to vaccinated people being able to be in the same room or once persons are vaccinated, there’s a suggestion of them and travel without having to be tested.
“However, it is important for us to put things in context and we always have to look at what’s happening in our own country because even though that may be a general notation, we have to look and see what’s happening here.”
She added: “Right now, what’s happening here is we’re having an increase in cases, we have a third wave. That’s a fact. We also know that our healthcare institutions are overwhelmed. That is a fact. There is a staff shortage and we also know from the data that the cases that were presented, the majority have come in from international travel.
“So to me, by process of reasonable deduction it would say to me that perhaps at this point in time, even though we know persons have been vaccinated in other countries and we too have started our process, maybe we should not put our guards down as yet. Maybe we should still have some measure in place whether it’s the PCR, rapid or something because at the end of the day, once they are in the country, they are in the country. It’s here.”
Total COVID cases in the country rose to 2,868 after 68 new cases were recorded on Tuesday. Of those cases, 464 are active. Meanwhile, 51 people are in hospital sick with the virus.