Chief medical officer Dr Roshan Parasram reported to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) yesterday that Trinidad and Tobago is now at the highest level in the movement of the novel coronavirus: community spread.
Parasram’s report preceded a press conference by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley today in which he announced the ‘fight back’ against Covid-19, with the roll-back of several ‘non-essential’ services and, potentially, new legislation.
“We are now in a position where we have to act,” said Rowley.
From 6am on Monday, Rowley said that, for the next 28 days, in-house dining or consumption of drinks will not be allowed at restaurants, bars, food courts and malls or within its precinct—although pick-up remains available.
There are also closures to: beaches and rivers, churches and all places of worship, gyms, water parks, casinos and members clubs, schools and education institutions, and cinemas.
All gatherings outside of home are restricted to five persons, with weddings, funerals and christenings allowed 10 persons.
“It is 10 persons absolute; not groups of up to 10,” said former health minister Terrence Deyalsingh. “[…] Please do not encourage gatherings in your own home for birthday parties, etc. This is just as dangerous as going to a bar.
“Do not invite the virus into your home.”
Deyalsingh’s presence at today’s press conference was an indication that he is likely to return as health minister, when Rowley is finally allowed to select his Cabinet—after the PNM’s apparent success at the 10 August General Election. Deyalsingh revealed that he chaired meetings at the Ministry of Health since Wednesday.
There will be a new minister of education, though. And Rowley said the first job for that person will be to strengthen the country’s online learning capacity. The prime minister said schools are unlikely to reopen in 2020.
“It appears as though we will not be able to put our children out for the rest of the year,” said Rowley.
However, the SEA examinations will proceed on 20 August for primary school students.
“On that one day, SEA students will come out and write their exams and go straight back home,” said Rowley.
Maxi taxis and taxis will return to 50 percent capacity while the government will attempt to limit movement between Trinidad and Tobago to essential travel.
All contact sport, the prime minister said, will be stopped from Monday morning. It means the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) and Ascension Tournament will be delayed until October or, particularly in the case of the school game, stopped altogether until 2021.
It creates a potential headache for Trinidad and Tobago Men’s National Senior Team football coach Terry Fenwick, whose players are expected to face their first Qatar 2020 World Cup qualifier in October.
More than half of Fenwick’s player pool will not be in active competition before then while it is uncertain if he will be allowed to train his local players either.
The Warriors will almost certainly be unable to host any teams and would have to play all their games abroad; and, even then, the footballers would need special dispensation to return home once they leave our shores.
Fenwick and his coaching staff—and every other national football coach, for that matter—have not been paid by the current Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) administration or the Fifa-appointed normalisation committee, with the two bodies locked in legal battle at present.
Rowley confirmed that the government’s commitment to the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) cricket competition will continue though, since all the players used in the competition have been tested and will remain isolated from the population.
The prime minister and CMO pointed out too that the CPL rules should ensure no interaction between players and tournament employees like groundsmen, drivers and deliverymen, who return home to their families every night.
“The groundsmen are not hugging up the players,” said Rowley.
Rowley also said he will ask ‘his attorney general’ to make the use of face masks mandatory for the first time. (Parasram stressed that face masks offer far more protection than face shields.)
“We will cease to rely on suasion and move to having it an offence to not have covered your nose and mouth in a public place,” said the prime minister. “You will be at the discretion of law enforcement. [And] we are going to have greater enforcement of the regulations we put in the place—because to have the regulations and have people turn a blind eye to them [defeats the purpose].”
Trinidad and Tobago suffered two novel coronavirus-related deaths on Friday, which brought the total number of fatalities since the onset of the pandemic to 10.
Parasram revealed that the Ministry of Health has been forced to use quarantine facilities in Sangre Grande, Balandra, Tacarigua and Debe, Penal to house active Covid-19 cases, due to the sheer numbers in the population at present.
Trinidad and Tobago had 325 active cases this morning with another 23 to be added to that list by this evening.
Deyalsingh reiterated that the recent backlog of cases was due to issues at the Trinidad Public Health Lab (TPHL) rather than at the Caribbean Public Health Agency (Carpha) and said steps had been taken to fix the problem by Friday 21 August.
“We are entering an accelerated phase [of transmission] which is called the log phase, so we are trying to prevent the speed of the transmission of the virus,” said Dr Avery Hinds, technical director of the Epidemiology Division. “[…] From east to west, north to south, we are seeing cases popping up… There is no place that can be considered exempt or at a lower risk [of infection] now.”
Hinds noted that, in many of the current cases, patients admitted that they were lax in their use of face masks. There is no more room for complacency—which might soon be a literal as well as figurative assessment.
Deyalsingh urged persons not to flock to the bars for a last drink, which might lead to a further explosion of cases in two weeks. Rowley pointed to a recent patient who interacted with 150 persons before being hospitalised.
“If these [measures] do not get the level of observance we expect and the numbers get far worse, the next step will be to go to more complete closure,” said Rowley. “[…] If that is what we have to do to save lives, we will do it. There are limited resources available to the country [and] we have used up significant portions of that during the [previous] lock down.”
The government will consider further grants to the public—including taxi drivers—but Rowley said they cannot make any promises now, since the economy is far weaker than it was in March.
Rowley defended his decision to have a ‘pandemic election’ as he noted the nation’s health was far better when he set the date, early last month. He reiterated his view that persons who suggest the nation should not have gone to the polls on 10 August would have been the first to criticise him if he had postponed it.
“We were not in this situation [with widespread infection] when the election was called in July,” said Rowley. “During the election campaign, we started to get some increases… If it was [spread because of election] that is behind us now.”
At present, the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) is processing the challenge of five seats by the United National Congress (UNC), after Rowley declared a 22-19 win for the People’s National Movement (PNM).
Rowley urged citizens and all political leaders to put the country’s fight with Covid-19 ahead of narrower interests.
“I am appealing to the population […] by now all of us should be on board in this country, fighting this,” he said. “If we do not take this seriously there is a likelihood that many more families [can lose loved ones] or maybe it will be somebody close to you. The virus does not pick and choose.”
What is in store for T&T until Sunday 13 September:
- No in-house dining at restaurants, bars, food courts and malls or within its precincts—pick up remains available;
- Beaches and rivers closed to the public;
- All places of worship are to be closed;
- All gyms are to be closed;
- All water parks are to be closed;
- No contact sports;
- Casinos, members clubs and cinemas to be closed;
- Public gatherings limited to five persons;
- Funeral, weddings and christenings limited to 10 persons;
- Taxis and maxis to operate at 50 per cent capacity;
- Air and sea bridge travel to Tobago limited to essentials;
- All teaching institutions to be closed until further notice although the SEA exam will be held on August 20;
- The Independence Day parade likely to be scrapped;
- The repatriation of nationals to be drastically slowed until space is available at quarantine facilities;
- The attorney general will look into legislation for the mandatory use of face masks.