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Director for the Emergency, Disaster Management and Special Services (EDMSS) Branch at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Dr. Nicole Dawkins-Wright
Photo: Mark Bell

Story Highlights

  • The Ministry of Health and Wellness has been working assiduously to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which is infecting thousands of persons worldwide and leaving a trail of death in its wake.
  • Jamaica’s response, which has been considered quick and effective, has earned high commendation internationally, the most significant of which is the World Health Organization (WHO), the specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health.
  • On Tuesday, March 17, Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton, received the timely and welcome endorsement from the WHO.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness has been working assiduously to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which is infecting thousands of persons worldwide and leaving a trail of death in its wake.

Jamaica’s response, which has been considered quick and effective, has earned high commendation internationally, the most significant of which is the World Health Organization (WHO), the specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health.

On Tuesday, March 17, Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton, received the timely and welcome endorsement from the WHO.

It came in the form of a post on the micro-blogging, social networking site, Twitter, by WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, hailing the Minister’s leadership of the health team in responding to the pandemic.

“Thank you so much for your leadership – and preparedness – for #COVID19, @christufton, #Jamaica Being ready for #coronavirus is key to pushing it back fast. Together, for a safer world,” he tweeted.

In an interview with JIS News, the Ministry’s Director for the Emergency, Disaster Management and Special Services Branch, Dr. Nicole Dawkins-Wright, explains the steps taken, the existing systems that gave Jamaica a head start and those that have been implemented to facilitate the effort.

“Upon recognition that the outbreak was expanding out of the immediate environs of the affected country, Jamaica enhanced public health surveillance capabilities and surveillance activities at all ports of entry,” she says.

This, she points out, required resensitisation of front-line officers on what to look for, screening protocols, ensuring that the relevant monitoring and detection equipment were in optimal working condition and that persons were aware of documentation procedures and all important reporting requirements.

Dr. Dawkins-Wright further explains that these measures would be necessary to ensure that the National Epidemiology Unit, which she describes as the intelligence centre, is able to look at the information that is coming in to facilitate the response.

She informs that once health officials recognised that the country was threatened by the importation of this virus, messages were placed in strategic places at all ports of entry.

“We increased the optics in terms of what is on the floor, our banners and our health information material, so persons would read and be afforded some information,” she adds.

The Director notes that at the first indication that there was spread of the virus to other countries, Jamaica issued a travel restriction on China, which was the country at the epicentre of the outbreak at that time.

“We decided that we would first delay the possibility of it coming into the island, thereby giving us a little more time to put the necessary measures in place and this resulted in us being one of the first countries to restrict potential persons who may be carriers of infection, which put us in very good stead from very early,” she adds.

The health officials also worked at increasing the level of awareness among all stakeholders. Sensitisation sessions were conducted among front-line healthcare workers ahead of updating and activating response plans.

According to Dr. Dawkins-Wright, the team also took stock of inventory, in terms of manpower, supplies, infrastructure and equipment, while evaluating weaknesses and strengths to determine where capacity building may have been necessary.

“So, by the time the virus entered into the region of the Americas, Jamaica was well out there in terms of what needed to be in place to respond when the first case actually landed on our shores,” she explains.

Dr. Dawkins-Wright says that when Jamaica eventually confirmed its first case on March 10, it was a matter of changing gear and putting the plans in place to deal with it.

Director of Family Health Services at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Dr. Simone Spence (right), confers with representative from the University Hospital of the West Indies, Dr. Peter Glegg, at a meeting of the Health Emergency Operations Centre.

 

She explains that the heightened surveillance system was able to pick up the person fairly quickly, as they were on the lookout for persons with a positive travel history, elevated temperatures and respiratory symptoms.

“We picked up that person as soon as she came into the system and as soon as that was detected, we moved into our response phase of our preparedness plan,” the Director informs.

“We also engaged our communication partners early, so that when it came to mobilisation of the system to support the response, there wasn’t a lot of work to be done,” she adds.

She commended the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) team, which was also early in providing support.

“When we made the request for PAHO’s assistance to help us to build capacity in the country, they responded favourably and that made it that much easier for us to be able to do the testing with good turnaround times,” the Director tells JIS News.

“I must also give credit to all the people who have been working over the years in the system. Part of the reason Jamaica was selected among the first set of countries to receive support from PAHO is because we were recognised for our very good surveillance system from the influenza network,” she points out.

The Director explains that the next step was to ensure that the country had a very robust prevention and containment mechanism, which included quarantine operations.

Director for the Emergency, Disaster Management and Special Services (EDMSS) Branch, in the Health Ministry, Dr. Nicole Dawkins-Wright (left), interacts with staff in the Health Emergency Operations Centre.

 

“Once we identified the first case then the strategy for quarantine also changed. We had to adjust again in terms of mobilising our resources and our risk changed to being exposed to the persons who are coming into country and persons in the country who may also be infected,” she says.

“The Quarantine Authority met and devised the rules of quarantine and those are what we implemented towards executing the prevention and containment strategy,” she explains. The Director points out that in dealing with an outbreak of this nature, it must be borne in mind that it is a novel virus.

“This means that humanity has never been exposed to the virus, so there is no inherent resistance to it. It also means that this kind of outbreak is likely to sweep through our country fairly quickly, because the entire population is vulnerable,” she says.

The Director adds that it has been established that some persons will have mild symptoms, while some will be adversely affected.

According to Dr. Dawkins-Wright, the team will continue to monitor the virus through the Health Emergency Operations Centre (HEOC), which operates out of the Emergency, Disaster Management and Special Services Unit on a 24-hour basis.

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