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Falling cases, stubborn restrictions, uncertain vaccine rollout: one year with Covid 19

‘[…] Despite low Covid-19 stats that continue to trend downwards, the health minister has said that it is vaccinations that would lead to a return to life before Covid-19 restrictions …

‘[…] Whether that timetable is possible given the problems the government has had sourcing vaccines remains to be seen. But even if it does take a year to vaccinate 20% of the population, it might still mean T&T will have to live with restrictions at least until 2022 …’

Today, Wired868 takes a look back at the year when the pandemic changed life in T&T:

Photo: Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19 (by CDC from Pexels)

Tracking the virus: cases and deaths

Speaking at a press conference, Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh announced that the country’s first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed at 2.45 pm Thursday 12 March 2020. The patient was a 52-year-old man who had returned to Trinidad from Switzerland.

Less than two weeks later, Tobago recorded its first case, a resident of Trinidad who had come in on an international flight. Two days after that confirmation, on 25 March 2020, 77-year-old Hansel Leon died at the Couva hospital, becoming the country’s first Covid-19 fatality. Tobago would record its first fatality on 5 April 2020.

Coronavirus cases continued to rise during March, mostly through imported cases, until the curve for new cases was flattened in April. By the end of July 2020, however, new cases began to spike again. The rolling seven-day average for daily infections rose over 100 cases per day by August.

By mid-August, the chief medical officer, Dr Roshan Parasram, advised the World Health Organisation (WHO) that Trinidad and Tobago was in community spread—a category that describes when the source of transmission of the virus is unknown or not linked to a known cluster of cases.

The rolling seven-day average peaked at 123.4 cases per day in mid-September. New infections fell after that, until a spike in mid-November, driven by an outbreak of infections in the prison system that saw 122 people testing positive for the virus.

Photo: Minister of Social Development and Family Services Donna Cox (right) presents a Christmas hamper to San Juan resident Tricia Straker and her family on 25 December 2020.
(via Ministry of Social Development and Family Services)

The country braced for a jump in new cases as the Christmas season approached, but the rolling seven-day average continued to fall, ending the year at 8.7 cases per day. By the end of 2020, 7,150 people had contracted the virus.

Of those who had contracted Covid-19 in 2020, 127, mostly men and mostly over 60, had died.

By the new year, the virus seemed to be under control. The rolling seven-day average for daily infections has stayed below 20 cases per day and today is under four new cases per day.

The positive rate—the ratio of positive cases found to the total number of test samples—is 0.9%. The WHO issued guidelines in May 2020 that said the epidemic was controlled if a country recorded ‘less than 5% of samples positive for Covid-19, at least for the last 2 weeks’.

The death rate has also slowed, with 13 fatalities being reported for the year so far. The case fatality rate (CFR), which shows the ratio of how many people have died to the number of confirmed cases of the virus, is now at 1.8%. Worldwide, the CFR is around 2.2%

Since recording the first case, more than 7,759 people have been infected with the Sars-Cov-2 virus and 140 people have died.

Restrictions

The T&T government has credited its public health regulations for the low confirmed cases and mortality numbers. In response to the pandemic, it issued stay at home orders, school and business closures, mandatory mask-wearing, restrictions on gatherings, and travel and border restrictions.

The first stay at home order came when Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced in March 2020 that non-essential workers would have to stay home for two weeks from 30 March to 15 April. The order was later extended to May.

At the time of the announcement Rowley said: “From Sunday night, stay home and if you don’t, both police officers and soldiers will be enforcing the new plan. The attorney general and others will tell you which laws are going to be enforced.

“The minister of national security and his security teams, the commissioner of police and his men and women are standing by to enforce the quarantine law and all others. We are at the stage now that joke is joke, but this is no joke.”

Photo: A taxi driver in San Fernando waits for passengers during the Covid-19 pandemic on 23 April 2020.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

At the start of May, he announced the re-opening of the country through six phases, starting 10 May. This saw the re-opening of most businesses and the public sector through May and June.

One year later, several restrictions remain in place:

Mandatory mask-wearing: On 31 August 2020, it became illegal for anyone over 8 years old to be in public spaces without wearing a mask. Masks must also be worn in private vehicles carrying more than one person.

Public gatherings: No more than 10 people are allowed in public together. Churches can have services at 50% capacity.

Bars and restaurants: Restrictions on dine-in service have been lifted, allowing restaurants to operate at 50% capacity. They aren’t allowed to serve alcohol, though. Bars are only allowed take-away service.

Beaches, rivers and pools: Rivers, streams and public pools remain closed. Beaches, however, are open between 6am and 6pm. Rules for mask-wearing and public gatherings apply for beachgoers.

Photo: Partygoers held by police in Kelly Village in November 2019.
(via TTPS)

Parties, fetes and dancehalls: Dancehalls and nightclubs remain closed. Both outdoor and indoor parties and fetes have also been banned.

With this restriction, Carnival 2021 was cancelled. Several underground parties, or ‘zesser’ parties, have emerged in response to the restrictions.

Sports: Both national sports and recreational teams are now allowed to play sports again. Recreational teams will have to play outdoors with no more than 22 athletes.

Closed borders

The government enacted its first travel restrictions on 30 January, before the first case of Sars-Cov-2 was discovered in the country. Non-nationals who had travelled to China within 14 days were not allowed entry. Nationals were allowed in but had to stay in isolation for 14 days.

The restrictions on travel from China was then extended to Iran, South Korea, Italy, Singapore and Japan in February. On 11 March, the day before T&T recorded its first Covid-19 case, France and Germany were added to the restricted list.

 

Photo: One of thousands of travellers who were stuck at airports due to cancelled flights and hurriedly closed borders as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 17 March, the government closed the borders to all non-nationals, except through exemptions.  And by midnight 22 March, borders were completely closed; nationals and non-nationals alike were denied entry into the country. Only cargo vessels and special exemptions were allowed in.

Almost immediately, stories of nationals stranded outside the country appeared. One group of 33 T&T nationals, returning from a cruise in Dubai, were stuck in Barbados one day after the borders closed. They were allowed to return home after a month in Barbados.

Today nationals can re-enter the country through an exemption process managed by the Ministry of National Security. As of 4 December 2020, there had been 15,471 applications and 8,500 granted entry.

Repatriation flights now land in T&T with between 100 and 200 nationals at 8-10-day intervals. According to Dr Maryam Richards, principal medical officer at the Ministry of Health, flights coming through Barbados have a 16-day interval to accommodate longer state quarantine periods.

Most returning nationals must remain in state quarantine for seven days and then home isolation for another seven. Those coming through Barbados, however, must stay 14 days in state facilities because of Ministry of Health concerns that the UK variant of the virus will be imported. One case of the UK variant had been detected and contained by a national returning from the UK.

Photo: An empty classroom during the Covid-19 pandemic.
(via Brookings.edu)

School closures and online learning

In mid-March, the prime minister announced that schools would be closed for one week. He later extended the closure to 20 April. However, schools remained empty until 20 July, when primary school students in standard five returned to prepare for the SEA examinations in August. Secondary school students sat in-person CSEC and CAPE exams beginning 13 July.

After months of children staying away from school, the school term started on 1 September virtually. Teachers prepared online classes and some schools left printed packages of schoolwork in drop boxes for parents to collect.

But not all children could go to school online. Internet access and computer devices were not always available.

Minister of State in the Ministry of Education Dr Lovell Francis said: “At our rough estimate of the number of devices that might be needed, the number is tremendous. We are thinking maybe something like 60,000 students may not have devices.”

Often the devices students did have access to were cell phones. The ministry of Education collected data that showed that at Cedros Secondary, 217 out of 311 students had internet connectivity. Of those,176 had access to a personal electronic device, of which 120 were smartphones.

Online teaching continued into 2021. On 8 February 2021, secondary school students in forms 4, 5 and 6 returned to physical school.

Photo: Bottles of Covid-19 vaccine.

One student in Tobago was reported to have tested positive for Covid-19 on 1 March. No other positive cases have been detected in schools so far.

Vaccines

Globally, scientists rushed to develop a vaccine to fight Covid-19 since the pandemic began.

In October 2020, Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh announced that Trinidad and Tobago had joined the Covax facility to secure vaccines when they became available. The WHO-led facility guaranteed participating countries enough vaccines to inoculate 20% of their populations.

T&T invested US$9m upfront to join the facility and contribute to funds needed for the research and development of vaccines.

At the end of 2020, three vaccine candidates had completed stage three trials and were approved for emergency use by the WHO. They were the Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines.

On 30 January 2021, the health minister announced that the government was expecting between 100,000 and 120,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the Covax facility by March. Later, on 27 February, he said 100,800 vaccine doses would arrive by the end of March.

Photo: Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh addresses journalists during a virtual media conference on 7 May 2020.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

In his latest announcement, Deyalsingh said that 33,600 of the 100,800 expected vaccine doses will arrive by the end of March. He said that he expected the balance to arrive in a second shipment by May.

Both the health minister and prime minister have blamed the late start of the T&T vaccine rollout on a global vaccine shortage and vaccine hoarding by rich countries.

“If you were a small purchaser, you were not even listened to or entertained by the suppliers who were out there under the control of the bigger more powerful countries,” Rowley said. “So outside of Covax, there was virtually no supply available to small countries like us.”

But T&T was able to get its hands on 2000 shots when the government of Barbados shared some of the vaccines it received through a donation from the Indian government. The gift was used to vaccinate more than 500 healthcare workers.

On 17 February, nurse Keisha Gomes Prevatt became the first person in Trinidad and Tobago to be vaccinated for Covid-19.

Photo: Nurse Keisha Gomes Prevatt (left) was first to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
At her side is Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh.
(via TTT online)

Despite low Covid-19 stats that continue to trend downwards, the health minister has said that it is vaccinations that would lead to a return to life before Covid-19 restrictions.

“If we get enough of the population to take the vaccine, the day will come, I promise you, when you can hug your grandfather, go to a party, and life could return to what we knew it in January 2020,” he said at a press conference on 17 February.

He has declined to say how much of the population would need to be vaccinated to be enough to trigger the lifting of restrictions.

The government has said it aims to reach herd immunity through vaccinations, which would require about 70% of the population to be inoculated. It has also said it expects to vaccinate 20% of the population within a year of starting its vaccination programme.

Whether that timetable is possible given the problems the government has had sourcing vaccines remains to be seen. But even if it does take a year to vaccinate 20% of the population, it might still mean T&T will have to live with restrictions at least until 2022.

About Fayola Bostic

Fayola Bostic is a writer and copyeditor. She is the founder of Write Energy Ltd, which creates content for technical industry brands. Fayola is a former engineer who has been writing professionally for more than a decade.

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