Extended restrictions, no target for returning freedoms; reviewing Dr Rowley’s presser

Trinidad and Tobago will retain its current Covid-19 restrictions until at least 4 July, while Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley intends to have Parliament approve a 90-day extension to the state of emergency, which can see the country remain under curfew until 22 August.

They were the two main updates at today’s press conference. Both were expected.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

“We would have the legal ability to go [with an extended state of emergency] for 90 days,” said Dr Rowley. “We would revoke it as soon as it becomes the prudent action to take.”

Trinidad Guardian journalist Joshua Seemungal suggested that a significant number of the population hoped for a firm target to aim at—in terms of low infections or high vaccination levels—at which point various freedoms would be returned to them.

Did Dr Rowley have such a figure to share? (Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh, chief medial officer Dr Roshan Parasram, chief epidemiologist Dr Avery Hinds, principal medical officer Dr Maryam Abdool-Richards, and thoracic medical director Dr Michelle Trotman were also at the press conference.)

“I don’t want to go down to that road because that will create more speculation,” said Dr Rowley. “We will be guided by the condition of this country.”

He did not say why a definitive target would create speculation, while his suggested yardstick of being ‘guided by the condition of this country’ would not.

Photo: Can’t be too careful…
A statute of iconic chutney singer Sundar Popo in Debe is given the protection of a face mask during the Covid-19 pandemic on 23 April 2020.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

Dr Hinds appeared to support the prime minister’s thinking, as he gave a short quip about a parachuter deciding to close his chute prematurely because of how well he thought things were going.

“The last thing we want to do is make a change too quickly,” said Dr Hinds.

Could Seemungal’s question not have been interpreted as citizens merely wanting to know how they could tell when their feet are safely on the ground so they could put their chutes away?

The government has been nothing if not consistent on this point, though. And they have no intention of sharing whatever formula they have that determines when citizens can return home, and whether PriceSmart is a retail store or a grocery.

Our policy regarding the novel coronavirus, the prime minister said, will be ‘determined by what the condition would be in the country’—without going on to state any specifics of the condition they were looking for.

Image: Life during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today’s messages from the country’s top health care professionals were of slight improvements in a situation that was still fairly grim.

Hospital wards are at 81% occupancy in Trinidad and 30% in Tobago, with 75% considered the point at which resources become dangerously strained. 

The rolling seven-day average of infections continues to curve upwards too and now stands at 508. On cue, this afternoon’s Covid-19 update noted an additional 509 confirmed cases—based on samples taken between 16 May and 21 May—with 17 deaths.

Dr Abdool-Richards pointed to a slight decrease in occupancy at the intensive care and high dependency units. The gloomy flip-side to that might be there were 196 Covid-19 related deaths this month so far, which is bound to impact on the availability of rooms there.

The news of a narrowing gap between admissions and discharges at hospitals was certainly positive. Only one week has passed since the declaration of the SOE. As Dr Hinds reiterated, it usually takes at least two weeks before there is tangible return from such measures.

Photo: Medical staff at the Arima General Hospital.
(via NCRHA)

By the first week of June then, if the population remains disciplined, the country’s collective health should begin to show real signs of improvement.

“The only way to win this war against Covid-19 would be to continue practicing the three Ws,” said Dr Abdool-Richards—again, “wear your masks, watch your distance and wash your hands.”

Dr Trotman noted with some alarm that she still saw lots of persons moving about during daytime hours. But Dr Hinds echoed Dr Abdool-Richards’ cautious optimism, with regards to infection levels.

“There is a slight decline, but we are not out of the woods yet,” said Dr Hinds.

At present, 94% of Trinidad and Tobago’s 7,765 active cases are at home, rather than at a public health care facility. Dr Trotman stressed the importance of the measures they take during their ‘self-isolation’, as they await swab results or a return to good health.

Photo: A patient under quarantine at home..

“The utensils that you share, it is not for me and for you—those are yours,” said Dr Trotman. “You have to be in a separate bathroom. You have to be more stringent than ever…”

It is uncertain what percentage of the persons quarantining at home have the option of a separate bathroom. Although, admittedly, people need to be resourceful in such times.

Dr Parasram revealed that the Ministry of Health resumed its vaccination drive yesterday. Deyalsingh said the country intends to vaccinate 136,000 persons or 10% of the population by August, which, ever fond of superlatives, he described as ‘excellent’.

The vaccination target is one figure that the government certainly does not mind revealing. Dr Rowley again said the country’s goal is to jab 60% to 70% percent of the population, which should be enough for ‘herd immunity’.

It is worth noting that there is no consensus yet on the figure needed for herd immunity from the novel coronavirus, with US medical expert Dr Anthony Fauci once claiming the target to be as high as 85% to 90%.

Photo: A nurse administers the Covid-19 vaccine in Trinidad.
(via MoH)

“The percentage of people who need to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity varies with each disease,” states the World Health Organisation. “For example, herd immunity against measles requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated. The remaining 5% will be protected by the fact that measles will not spread among those who are vaccinated. 

“For polio, the threshold is about 80%. The proportion of the population that must be vaccinated against Covid-19 to begin inducing herd immunity is not known.”

Once you identify a target, of course, people can then simultaneously declare it to be too much, too small, or too far away. There were more than a few parents who would bat away such requests with: ‘you can go outside when I say so’.

Trinidad and Tobago, it seems, are being asked to live with that.

At this stage, most people are happy to snatch at any hint of good news. But there will always be the conspiracy theorists, as well as those who take their professional titles of ‘opposition’ quite literally.

Photo: UNC leader and Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar (background) on the campaign trail during the run up to the 10 August 2020 elections.
(via UNC)

Dr Rowley used a fair portion of his speaking time to address the latter, as he rebuked statements from UNC politicians that supposedly sought to lower the public’s confidence in health care professionals and might have the effect of making doctors second-guess themselves.

“They are playing politics with people’s lives,” said Dr Rowley. “[…] Keep the politics out of the hospital wards!”

The prime minister’s use of time designated to inform the population of the national policy towards a deadly virus to chastise the UNC might itself be viewed as political. And the fact that not a single member of the media raised any such opposition talking point, suggested Dr Rowley might have given them more attention than was merited—at least on government air-time.

It was ironic too that the prime minister chided members of the public for wearing masks below their chins, which they would pull up once a law enforcement officer came into sight.

“Some people feel they are invincible,” said Dr Rowley.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(via Office of the Prime Minister)

Arguably, his admonishment would have carried more weight if he was not the only unmasked speaker at the podium. The prime minister, mind you, tested positive for the virus on Easter Monday.

Incidentally, the number of live viewers for the press conference started at 13.5k. It dropped to 8.8k during the prime minister’s presentation and stood at just 7.7k by the time the questions and answers segment started.

Perhaps, the viewers who switched off had figured out by then that it was a case of ‘as you were’ regarding the Covid regulations. Or maybe it was something else.

WHO’s verdict on ‘lockdowns’, by the way, is that they ‘disproportionately affect disadvantaged groups, including people in poverty, migrants, internally displaced people and refugees’ but are a necessary evil to ‘buy time’ during surges of the virus.

“Governments must make the most of the extra time granted by ‘lockdown’ measures by doing all they can,” stated WHO, “to build their capacities to detect, isolate, test and care for all cases; trace and quarantine all contacts; engage, empower and enable populations to drive the societal response and more.”

Photo: The Idea Factory in Penal is closed for the Covid-19 lockdown of April 2020.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

Perhaps Trinidad and Tobago will hear more about the government’s proactive use of the state of emergency at the next press conference.


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