Speech

Madam Speaker, based on the information received from the Ministry of Health and Wellness, I wish to report that, as of yesterday, February 8, 2021, Jamaica recorded 17,701 cumulative cases of COVID-19.  359 persons have died due to the pandemic representing a 2% fatality rate currently. I offer my sincere condolences to all who have lost a loved one.

We have had 12,362 persons who have recovered.  Our recovery rate is now 69.8%; when I last updated the house two (2) weeks ago the our recovery rate was 78.6%. The number of active cases, that is the number of persons who still have the virus, is 4,793.

As of yesterday, we had 156 persons hospitalized, with 22 being moderately ill and 13 critically ill. We now have 12 persons quarantined in a government facility and 18,727 persons quarantined at home.

Yesterday, we had 403 positive cases out of 1,935 samples tested which is a test positivity rate of 20.8%. The average test positivity rate for the preceding seven days was 15.3%.

Madam Speaker, just to place this in context – in the final week of 2020, our positivity rate was 7.7%.  Some 1,923 persons, who contracted COVID-19 in Jamaica, did so over the past seven days.

We are also seeing increased hospitalizations across the island. The islandwide hospital census shows significant occupancy levels across the health regions. Currently, Western Health Region is at 83% of capacity, the Southern Region is at 76%, Northern Region at 66% and Southeast Region at 59%. Additionally, there are a number of hospitals across the island that are at or above 90% occupancy level including May Pen, Kingston Public Hospital and Spanish Town Hospital.

Madam Speaker, I know one of the questions on persons’ minds is whether the spread we are now seeing is related in any way to the new strains or variants of the SARS-COV2 virus.  The Ministry of Health and Wellness has advised that as part of their surveillance activities on new variants, they have sent off for genome sequencing, 14 positive samples from travelers from the UK and, later this week, plan to send off another 101 samples randomly selected by parish.

The results from genome sequencing will give us better insights into how prevalent the new variants may be in Jamaica.

Madam Speaker, another question that I know persons have been asking is whether the increased numbers are simply as a result of increased testing. While we have certainly increased our testing capacity, it is important to note that we have not changed our criteria for testing. Our testing has always been based on our surveillance and is focused on suspected cases either as a result of symptoms or contact tracing. We do not do random testing.

The increased numbers being tested are therefore as a result of what we are seeing from our islandwide surveillance including through an additional 1,100 community health aides.  We are also seeing less hesitancy towards being tested and a reduction in the stigma associated with COVID-19 as a result of increased awareness. More persons are therefore voluntarily coming forward to be tested.

Madam Speaker, from the beginning of the pandemic, our management approach and measures have been measured, proportionate, evidence-based and situationally appropriate. While the Government is concerned about the rising number of cases, our focus has always been and continues to be on making sure that we do not overwhelm the capacity of our health care system.

The pressures that we are seeing on our health system indicate the need for action.  It is important to recognize that we cannot dedicate the entire capacity of our health care system to COVID-19 alone. There are several other critical illnesses and events (such as road crashes, heart and other respiratory related complications and other non-communicable diseases) to which our health care professionals have to continue to respond.

The Cabinet met yesterday and agreed on the following changes to the existing measures under the Disaster Risk Management Act:

  • Effective tomorrow, February 10, 2021, the islandwide curfew will commence at 8 pm instead of 10 pm nightly and end at 5 am, the following morning, until on February 24, 2021; and
  • The gathering limit will be reduced from 15 persons to 10 persons nationally.

In arriving at these measures, Madam Speaker, we continue to strike the delicate balance required to save lives while also preserving livelihoods.    While we have only observed this significant increase in numbers for the last few days and it is not yet conclusive that we have entered a new phase; we must take action now to ensure that the numbers do not spiral out of control.

We have tightened the measures initially for a two-week period and we will observe the impact and adjust going forward as necessary.

The security forces will be exercising greater vigilance to ensure that the curfew hours as well as the other measures in the DRMA are complied with.

Madam Speaker, I must again emphasize the importance of individual responsibility. It has been proven the world over that the standard infection prevention and control protocols – washing and sanitizing hands, wearing a properly fitted mask and maintaining physical distance – are effective in preventing the spread of the virus. These protocols work against both the existing and the new variants.  The significant increase in our case numbers is a reflection that as a country we have become somewhat lax in our adherence to these basic protocols.  We all need to exercise the vigilance and care that we did before, that enabled us to ‘flatten the curve’.

Madam Speaker, what I want every Jamaican to understand is that the Government can put in place more restrictive measures but those measures come at an economic cost.

Those measures all result in slowing down economic activity and hurting our livelihoods.  You have heard me say many times that we have to learn to live with COVID-19.  That is not to say that we must throw up our hands and give up.  It means we must learn to go about our normal daily productive activities but do so in a safe way so that we can continue to protect lives while also preserving our livelihoods.

 

Last week, the Minister of Health and Wellness announced that we would soon be receiving our first shipment of vaccines under the global COVAX facility.  We have been guaranteed a minimum of approximately 120,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that will enable us to vaccinate 60,000 persons in the first instance. We will prioritize access to the vaccines for the persons most at risk – our health care and other front-line workers, and our elderly population.  This will undoubtedly reduce our deaths and hospitalisations from COVID-19.

But we will not initially have enough vaccines for everyone, so the normal hand washing, masking and distancing protocols will be with us for a while.

In conclusion, Madam Speaker, the recent surge in our case numbers should serve as a reminder to all of us that the pandemic is not over and that we cannot afford to let down our guard.  At the same time, there is no need to panic. We must recommit to strict observance of all the protocols that have served us well since the beginning of the pandemic to protect lives and livelihoods.

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