By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Tribune Chief Reporter
PRIME Minister Philip “Brave” Davis yesterday announced tightened measures for The Bahamas, including a shorter testing window for inbound travellers and a change in the number of people who can attend indoor and outdoor gatherings.
He warned that the nation faces a few extremely difficult weeks ahead sparked by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
While health officials have not confirmed the presence of the latest variant here, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Michael Darville said they were convinced omicron “was more than likely” in the country and was to blame for the exponential increase in cases over the last several days.
Health officials recorded 140 new cases on Wednesday - 136 in New Providence, two in Grand Bahama and one each in Abaco and Eleuthera. On Tuesday, 79 new infections were reported and represented a more than 200 percent increase from the 26 cases reported on Monday.
In response to the apparent infectivity and transmission rate evidenced with the rise in positive case numbers, Mr Davis said there would be new measures because the country could be entering the worst phase of the pandemic.
In addition to plans to distribute hundreds of thousands of medical grade masks across the country, he said the testing window for people entering the country will change from five days to three days.
Beginning from January 7, a negative PCR test will be the only test accepted for all travellers entering the country, regardless of vaccination status.
Mr Davis also said effective immediately, the rules surrounding the size of gatherings have been adjusted. Indoor gatherings should not have more than 20 people while outdoor gatherings can have no more than 30 people.
He also said requests for proposals will be sought imminently for the government’s free testing initiative.
“I have been working with the Minister of Health Dr Michael Darville to consult a variety of experts and professionals, and as a result, we are adopting a number of steps immediately,” Mr Davis said in a live broadcast from his place of quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19.
“Please understand that the situation is fluid, and we will continue to adapt and make adjustments to our nation’s strategy as needed.
“We have acquired hundreds of thousands of medical-grade masks and intend to distribute those in communities across the country in the coming days. COVID is an airborne disease – infectious particles of the virus can hang in the air for hours in indoor spaces, and therefore the right masks can and do make a big difference.
“We are also implementing new rules at the borders. We are changing the requirements for entering the country: Bahamians and visitors must test negative within three days of entering the country, instead of five, and beginning on January 7, a negative PCR tests will be required for all. Rapid antigen testing remains a critical tool, but a PCR test is more sensitive and can pick up an infection earlier in its course than the antigen test.
“Effective immediately, we are changing the rules about the size of gatherings that are permitted. Indoor gatherings should not have more than 20 people, outdoor gatherings no more than 30.”
He continued: “We are going to increase outreach so that adults who are vaccinated receive a booster, as the booster appears to offer substantial additional protection from serious illness. We are also making concerted efforts to reach those who are not yet vaccinated at all – but unfortunately, it will take weeks for those just now receiving first shots to have the protections that the vaccines confer. It is still important – because COVID will still be circulating in several weeks. Our vaccination efforts will include outreach in inner-city communities and to undocumented migrants who may have struggled with online registrations, or access to vaccine venues.
“We will also be taking new measures to provide technical guidance to businesses, churches, and others so that these places can be made as safe as possible. Because COVID is airborne, ventilating indoor spaces and filtrating the air when possible, can make a big difference.
“We continue to progress as quickly as we can to make COVID-testing free. Requests for proposals will be sought imminently before we swiftly move to confirming a vendor who can meet the standards which are essential for this programme to work well.
“We are also taking steps to enhance our ability to respond to infections that require treatment.”
Additionally, Mr Davis said the government was ready to mobilise several field hospitals should the number of people needing to be admitted grow and additional manpower was also being recruited.
“In New Providence, we are planning to utilise the Nursing School and the National Stadium, and we are in discussions with an international partner to open a field hospital in Grand Bahama. We are identifying additional options in the Family Islands. Plans include the provision of equipment necessary to support the delivery of care to patients with moderate to severe symptoms.
“We are recruiting additional nurses and hospital staff. We are working to build partnerships with multiple international non-profits.”
He said health officials were working to purchase new medications and the South Beach Clinic was being prepared so that services are able to continue should there be a surge.
Mr Davis said the plan was reflective of the fast-changing situation in the country.
“I want to emphasise that activities that were relatively safe just last week are no longer safe. That is how quickly things have changed here.
“It’s important to understand that vaccinated people are at much, much lower risk for experiencing severe disease – but vaccinated people can still catch and spread omicron. Some vaccinated individuals who are infected will have no symptoms, some will have mild symptoms, and some will even have serious cases. And just as vaccination reduces but does not eliminate the chance you will contract the virus, prior infection also does not provide full protection,” he also said.
Officials said yesterday that 200 positive samples had been sent to a diagnostic lab in Panama to access gene sequencing to determine if any of the cases were due to omicron.
“After reviewing the data for the last few days and the infectivity as well as the rate of transmission, we are convinced without the gene sequencing that the omicron variant is more than likely in The Commonwealth of The Bahamas,” Dr Darville said.
The Ministry of Health is expected to hold a press conference early next week to deliver the latest statistics regarding the rise in cases and officials maintained yesterday that they were preparing for a spike having watched the trends in neighbouring countries.