By PAVEL BAILEY
A LOCAL infectious disease expert has said that despite the recent fall in COVID-19 cases, the country is “not out of the Omicron wave just yet”.
Dr Nikkiah Forbes, director of the National HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Programme at the Ministry of Health, said on Friday that even with the recent decline in COVID cases following the holiday Omicron spike, it is still too early to say that the country has reached the peak of the latest coronavirus wave.
In an interview with The Tribune, Dr Forbes discussed how the country is still early in the Omicron wave and explained that to track the progress of waves in infectious diseases, you must observe a sustained trend over a period. The presence of the variant has not been officially confirmed in The Bahamas, however, due to the explosion of cases in recent weeks, officials have said they believe the strain is in the country.
“The week of January that ended January 8 was a high for us in (the) country as it relates to the number of COVID-19 cases and the week following that, the cases, they were lower. To say that there is a significant trend as it relates to a decline you need to look at a sustained decrease over a number of weeks, it's generally three weeks or more,” Dr Forbes said.
While she cautioned the public not to take the downward trend in cases as a sign that the country is exiting the fourth wave, she voiced her optimism that the recent downtick in cases is something that could possibly continue.
“It is hopeful that the downward trend or the downward report in the number of cases in the week that was January 15, it is hopeful that that is something that will continue. It is a bit early to predict and forecast that and what we have to do is continue to monitor these trends and, in the meanwhile, there are things we should do. We all need to take personal responsibility and do what we know works to reduce the spread in COVID-19.”
As parents prepare to send their children back to in person classes on Monday, Dr Forbes believes that while there will always be a chance of COVID-19 outbreak at schools, if proper safety protocols are in place the risk to students and faculty can be minimal.
“We know that COVID in schools, once there are appropriate prevention protocols and mitigation steps in place that COVID in schools, can actually, the rate of it and transmission can be lower in schools than it is in the community.
“But the important condition is that there have to be protocols and mechanisms and support and mitigation in place, and that is actually something that is required at all levels. So, it starts from home. From when the students are at home, persons in the home that are eligible for vaccination, that will help significantly.”
She said that as children below the age of 12 are unable to get vaccinated for COVID-19, the adults in their life should get the shot to reduce the risk to both their children and others catching the disease.
Dr Forbes also advised parents that young children can be taught to follow safety protocols and wear masks if it is presented to them in a way that is age appropriate or fun, such as in rhymes and songs. She explained that also maintaining safety protocols in schools is key to reducing the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
“In the schools once the protocols are in place with mask wearing and everybody has to wear a mask, the teachers, the students, the adults, all the other persons that are a part of the staff of the school, it has to be consistently worn. Spacing in the classroom for example. Staggered breaks are another example. Screening for illness, clear strategies for if someone gets sick, what happens, who goes in quarantine, what happens to the person who is sick; those strategies have to be robust and in place to reduce the chance of a high chance of transmission.”
Despite these precautions Dr Forbes stressed that there is no way these strategies can fully eliminate the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in school, but that by keeping the rate of transmission low the country can keep the situation in control and safeguard public health.
“We have to understand that there will not be zero COVID cases in schools, just like there will not be zero COVID cases in country. It’s how you keep it at a rate that's low or if there is someone that is identified as a case they are identified early and isolated, there’s the necessary support. For example, contact tracing and the rest of the public health measures. That’s very, very important.”