Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has asked Trinidad and Tobago to accept another 14 days of economic restrictions and floated the possibility of a lift within 10 days if all goes well.
Rowley, accompanied by chief medical officer Dr Roshan Parasram and epidemiologist Dr Avery Hinds, confirmed that the twin island republic has done well in its tussle with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, he would like to afford medical professionals a bit more time to gather data.
“We are required to give the technical people a further 14 days to conduct examinations of the population outside of the hospitalisation situation,” said Rowley, at today’s media briefing. “[…] We do know that in our population out there, there is some element of the virus being present. What the scientists are required to do now is to go in […] and determine scientifically what presence or level of presence of the virus exists in the general population. That then will allow us to make confident opening up decisions.
“So in short, we need a few more days of holding the course to be able to come to a point where we can open back up the situation, knowing in stronger and more acceptable data that our condition is a, b, c or d.”
Hinds explained that from 114 confirmed cases, there were only four instances of spread which could be described as ‘minimal local transmission’.
At present, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has categorised Trinidad and Tobago as having ‘sporadic spread’ of the novel coronavirus, with the alternatives ranging between: no spread, sporadic spread, clusters and community transmission.
The surveillance testing done by the government in collaboration with the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA)—which are random samples taken from persons at health centres, who have some of the symptoms of the virus—has returned negatives in all 69 cases.
Still, even as the government tried to stick to CARPHA’s guidelines, the regional body refused to test 266 of the 1,501 samples submitted by the Ministry of Health.
Parasram said the Ministry of Health is finally ready to test persons independent of CARPHA’s relatively narrow parameters.
“Our testing capacity in Trinidad should be up and running by Monday the 27th,” said Parasram. “[The relevant health officials] confirmed that they may be able to do upwards of 50 tests per day but we are looking at the lower limit to start. If we go 14 days from the 27th, we should be able to complete around 700 tests which should give us a very good idea—if they are all negative—that there is little evidence of community spread.
“[…] We will be able to widen our net [outside the CARPHA yardstick] much more easily in terms of sampling.”
Should the rate of infection remain low, Rowley promised that the government will begin to reopen its economy. However, he warned that the borders will not be reopened soon.
He pointed out that there were roughly 330,000 persons living abroad with Trinidad and Tobago passports and several might yearn to return home due to hardships, inclusive of 22 million job losses in the United States. If one percent of those persons decide to come home, that could be 3,000 new arrivals in a country that has approximately 1,000 hospital beds.
“It follows that one of the things we have to do is keep our borders closed,” said Rowley. “[…] There are serious consequences to that but the greater consequence is to reinfect us and we go back to square one where we were two months ago.
“If we hold the course we are likely […] by that date I have given you which is the 15th of May, [to find that] Trinidad and Tobago should be in a good position to reopen a lot of what we have shut down.
“For the first time I can tell you, this tunnel is not an endless journey now. We have a milepost on this journey, meaning that a little bit of light is appearing.”
The Prime Minister urged persons to continue to adhere to medical advice in maintaining good hygiene and social distances. He referenced Denmark, which reopened its schools, and noted that country was able to reengineer the physical space of its classrooms to meet social distancing guidelines while they had a higher ratio of teachers to students and a different public transport system.
Trinidad and Tobago, he said, lacks the infrastructure or culture to follow suit. So there will be no rush to reopen schools.
Rowley also stressed that relations with Barbados remain excellent despite a ‘difference of opinion’ over comments by Ministry of National Security Stuart Young which was met with condemnation by the neighbouring island.
Closer to home, he joked with citizens who were impatient about returning to work.
“We are still under heavy threat and constraints in dealing with this virus,” said Rowley. “The fact that we have not been able to report huge numbers of deaths should not be taken as a pass, it should be taken as a result of the things that we have been doing. So we cannot now say we don’t know what to do and what will work for us…
“Today, I was able to give a timeframe for which our stressful stay at home [orders will end]… This is a country where people like to stay home from work. What’s happening?
“You’re being invited to stay home—you’re being paid—to save your life, let’s do it for another two weeks. And hopefully at the end of that two week period, we will be able to say we have gotten sufficient control over the propagation of this virus in our population that we could do certain things that we would not have dared done before.”