Fellow Virgin Islanders, residents and friends, the Ministry of Health and Social Development together with all relevant agencies of the Government of the Virgin Islands continue to closely monitor the rapid international and regional spread of the novel Coronavirus Disease COVID-19, and apply all necessary precautions to prevent the importation or transmission of the disease in the British Virgin Islands.
Of specific interest are persons with respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing, together with a history of travel to or residence in a country with established community transmission of COVID-19, during the 14 days prior to symptoms onset; as well as persons with any acute respiratory illness and at least one of the following during the 14 days prior to symptom onset:
a) contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19, or
b) worked in or visited a health care facility where confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients were being treated.
As of 1st March 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) has increased its assessment of the risk of spread and impact of the disease to very high at the global level, while the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), based on a regional risk assessment, upgraded the risk of transmission in the Caribbean from low, to high. To date, WHO has reported 87,137 cases of COVID-19 leading to 2,977 deaths within 60 countries, inclusive of two (2) island nations in the Caribbean.
What this means for the Virgin Islands is that all of us must heighten our level of preparedness and vigilance across the entire Territory to be able to rapidly and effectively respond to the COVID-19 epidemic.
The Government of the Virgin Islands remains committed to the protection of the health of all residents and visitors. Under the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer, who has been leading the Territory’s response since the beginning of the year, the Government has taken several proactive steps by implementing a wide range of public health measures which include but are not limited to:
- Activation of the Quarantine Authority together with consultation with the relevant officials from:
The Ministry of Health and Social Development
The Department of Information and Public Relations
BVI Ports Authority
BVI Airports Authority
Department of Agriculture
BVI Health Services Authority
Department of Disaster Management
Environmental Health Division
Her Majesty’s Prison
Royal Virgin Islands Police
Fire and Rescue Services Department
Deputy Governor’s Office
BVI Tourist Board and
Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture
- There has also been enhanced health surveillance, testing and quarantine of persons of interest;
- Increased sanitation measures, passenger screening, and staff training at all Ports-of-Entry;
- Issuance of travel guidance for affected countries;
- Training of healthcare providers in the initial detection and investigation of possible cases, infection prevention and control, and clinical diagnostics;
- Increased public health education and engagement through various media.
- Recommending everyone to take preventative measures such as handwashing, respiratory hygiene and environmental sanitation;
- Encouraging the use of personal protective equipment by health workers;
- Implementing advanced processes for the effective management of ill passengers at all primary Ports-of-Entry – including the establishment of quarantine spaces.
- Collaboration with air and seaports authorities and health officials from jurisdictions with direct transit routes to the BVI to ensure the effective implementation of public health protocols related to international travel.
The Minister of Finance has also agreed to issue a special warrant to secure initial funding of over Three Million dollars ($3M) to assist with preparedness and response efforts to include: overall coordination, surveillance and risk assessment, rapid response, laboratory detection, ports of entry surveillance, public awareness and community engagement, case management, and infection control activities.
This will also cover capital works such as the retrofitting of Immigration booths, establishment of quarantine stations at Ports-of-Entry and the refurbishment of a section of the Major Peebles Wing of the Dr. D. Orlando Smith Hospital (commonly referred to as the ‘old hospital’) for the isolation and care of patients affected by the disease.
As the need arises, Government will make additional funding available to ensure a vigorous COVID-19 response to protect the health and well-being of the Territory’s residents and safeguard its economic interests.
The Government of the Virgin Islands is also collaborating with other Caribbean countries to ensure a well-coordinated regional response. I was pleased to participate in the 8th Special Emergency Meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government on Sunday, March 1st, where a regional protocol establishing minimum standards for dealing with the COVID-19 virus was agreed. Along with CARICOM Heads of Government and Ministers of Health, the meeting was attended by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) and representatives of the leadership of the Cruise Ship industry and their representative bodies.
While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Virgin Islands thus far, the Government remains vigilant. Active surveillance and quarantine measures, have been carried out in a few cases of interest based on a combination of factors such as recent travel to a country where the disease is being spread, flu-like symptoms are detected, or potential contact with a person outside of the Territory that has been diagnosed with the disease.
In light of recent developments, I encourage the entire community to heed the calls being made by the Ministry of Health and Social Development as well as the regional and international Public Health agencies that we should shift our mindset from preparedness, to readiness and rapid response. We must continue to do all that is necessary to strengthen our capacity to respond to possible importation of cases to the Territory.
As the Government heightens its response to this rapidly evolving epidemic, I want to bring to your attention some of the actions that will be taken over the coming weeks:
- At all Ports-of-Entry there will be increased signage and health alerts, as well as enhanced sanitation and screening measures for the protection of staff, travelers, and the wider community. These will include monitoring and assessments by health personnel, temperature scanning, and quarantine facilities provided by the BVI Airports Authority and BVI Ports Authority inclusive of the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park.
- The Immigration Department will erect glass shields at airport immigration booths, widen the screening of passengers, and facilitate the sharing of Advanced Passenger Information from transit ports, in order to determine recent travel history of arriving passengers.
- The BVI Health Services Authority has acquired additional equipment and medical supplies and will shortly be ready to conduct COVID-19 testing at the Dr. D. Orlando Smith Hospital laboratory. The CARPHA laboratory in Trinidad will serve as a reference lab to confirm local test results.
- The Health Services Authority has also introduced treatment protocols and identified isolation rooms for the safe care of sick patients, should the need arise.
- The Government will also stockpile adequate quantities of cleaning supplies, masks and personal protective equipment (PPE).
- The Environmental Health Division will continue to conduct training and capacity building and provide technical guidance to border protection agencies, frontline tourism workers, taxi operators, and other strategic sectors in the days and weeks ahead.
Even as we continue to work together to prevent the importation of the novel coronavirus to the Territory, we must at the same time ensure that all health workers, households, schools, businesses, and other segments of our population are well prepared to keep themselves safe – If and When it does occur. With this in mind, the Ministry of Health and Social Development will be working under the ambit of the National Disaster Management Council to ensure a multi-sectoral coordinated approach, which is in keeping with our National Pandemic Influenza Plan. A health incident command post will be fully activated in the week ahead.
The National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) will be activated at LEVEL One (1) to ensure community-wide coordination and to provide guidance and support in developing and activating contingency plans.
The National Emergency Operations Centre represents the highest level of command and control that is activated in a national emergency situation. As COVID-19 is a Public Health Emergency, the Ministry of Health and Social Development is the lead agency for planning, initiation, direction and central coordination at Level One (1) activation of the NEOC.
I will again take the opportunity to urge everyone to use basic hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing with soap and water; use of hand sanitizers; coughing into your elbow, or a tissue; frequent disinfection of surfaces; and avoiding close contact with anyone with cough and fever symptoms. If YOU have fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical attention early, and share previous travel history with your healthcare provider.
The situation is still evolving, and we will need to tailor our response to reflect the realities on the ground from day-to-day and from week-to-week. We have overcome much greater challenges in the past, and I am confident that we have the capacity and psychological resilience to face this new challenge together, without resorting to undue fear, panic or stigmatization.
I also encourage you to seek factual information from trusted and reliable sources, such as the official websites and communication networks of the Government of the Virgin Islands, Caribbean Public Health Agency, Pan American Health Organisation, and the World Health Organisation. You can expect to see regular updates as we continue to work to safeguard the health of the population, and endeavor to keep you informed every step of the way. Thanks for your attention. May GOD bless and protect these Virgin Islands.