Right Steps & Poui Trees


Two Events in 24 Hours: A Signal of the Level of Covid Concern?

Yesterday evening (December 15, 2021), the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) held its first Covid Conversation press conference in nearly two months; the last one was held on October 26, 2021. This morning, Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on the Covid-19 Pandemic and Related Matters, chaired by Minister Tufton, met for the first time since July 20, 2021, five months ago. (If they’ve met more recently than that, I would stand corrected.) After months of these events not being held, two within 24-hours. That signals a level of concern about what is likely to be happening with Covid come the new year and a desire to signal this concern before the news and information lull that comes with the Christmas holidays.

We are right now in a comparatively good place regarding Covid-19 in Jamaica. Today National Epidemiologist Dr Webster-Kerr noted that for the first time in months the 7-Day Average for our Positivity Rate is below 5%. It is 4.9%.

She also said that we have now come out of our 3rd wave, which peaked in September, and that we are in what could be considered an inter-wave period. The number of confirmed cases has been coming down steadily, though there might be a little leveling off, she said.

Additionally, the pressure on hospitals at this time is not from Covid-19 patients, with all four of the health regions being well below 50% of their Covid-19 related capacity.

In almost all of the Covid-19 indicators, we have been moving in the right direction. Dr Webster-Kerr said:

“This is the picture. It’s looking good at this time but we have to be careful, in that for most of the indicators we are above where we were in between the 2nd and 3rd waves. So we can still increase rapidly, if we are going into the 4th wave.”

She did also note that the vaccination level is too low to have an effect on transmission, though it is having an effect on severe disease and deaths.

For weeks we have had warnings from many quarters, including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Health, the Chief Medical Officer, various medical bodies, individual doctors, epidemiology and public health experts, that we should expect a 4th wave, most likely starting in January. The identification of the new Omicron variant in late November has made this likelihood more of an inevitability.

The warnings were repeated at both the Covid Conversation yesterday and at the Joint Select Committee (JSC) meeting today. The holding of the two meetings in such quick succession signals the level of concern that there is about the 4th wave and the need to give the country an update before Christmas, with its associated activities that are likely to contribute to that wave.

In the discussion about the Omicron variant at the JSC today, Minister Tufton said:

“I would venture to say, and at the risk of appearing to be an alarmist, that’s not my intention, but I would venture to say, given what we know of this season and the interactions that are likely to take place, cross border interactions, whether diaspora or tourism related, it is highly likely that if the virus isn’t here already, it is highly likely that it will be here after the holiday season. And I think we have to be frank about this, I think we have to make it clear to the country, which is why we have continued to emphasize the wearing of the mask, physical distancing, the observation of the protocols around gatherings and indeed, where one is in doubt because they have symptoms or feel exposed, they should get tested. It is part of the preparation for the 4th wave because we do not believe that we, as an open society where we depend whether on trade or travel in one form or another, that it is going to be a permanent situation to keep the variant out. It’s just not practical. And I suspect the holiday season will only serve to add a greater risk or probability of that happening.”

So two events in 24 hours. After months without them. With everyone on the verge of pivoting to Christmas and year end activities. Let it not be said, however, that the year ended without these two mechanisms being resurrected to warn about the 4th wave and update about the preparations for same.

PBCJ Recording of Joint Select Committee on the Covid-19 Pandemic and Related Matters, December 16, 2021


Covid Reflections: Time for one of Dr Bisasor-McKenzie or Dr Webster-Kerr’s Covid-19 Updates

I’ve seen or heard pieces of information in the media about where we now are in the 3rd wave. For example, last week in an interview on Nationwide News Network, National Epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster-Kerr spoke about the expectation that the peak of this wave would occur in 2 weeks’ time and she gave projections for deaths in the coming weeks. During a discussion on Nationwide on Wednesday, Prof Winston Davidson mentioned that the reproductive number was now at 1.1. (For full disclosure, I was one of the other participants in the discussion.) In today’s Gleaner there is an article that refers to information said to have been obtained from Dr Webster-Kerr and the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW):

“A hair-raising 250 COVID-19 deaths occurred in August, with another 60 fatalities still under investigation, said Dr Karen Webster-Kerr, national epidemiologist. Scores of other deaths reported in August occurred months earlier.

August 26 was the deadliest day for the month, with 20 persons succumbing to the COVID-19.

However, the 296 COVID-19-related deaths for March outstripped August’s.

Data from the Ministry of Health and Wellness obtained by The Gleaner showed that another 20 deaths in March are under investigation.

With the country recording a total of 69,054 COVID-19 cases as at September 2 and a total of 1,568 deaths as a result of the disease, the ministry is reporting that the overall (2020 to 2021) COVID-19 case death rate is 2.3 per cent.

The death rate in August (1.6 per cent) plunged only because infections soared almost fivefold, month-on-month, to more than 15,300.”

At the Office of the Prime Minister’s (OPM) press briefing on Wednesday (1-9-21), Prime Minister Holness included 3 of the slides that are normally included in the MOHW PowerPoint updates and he commented on them, something which he has done before, though moreso in Parliament. Although both the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie and Dr Webster-Kerr were present at the press briefing, neither spoke from the podium or gave the ususal update.

(Perhaps this was in keeping with the brief nature of the press briefing…only 3 slides, and only two questions allowed in the Q&A.)

The last of these MOHW Covid-19 updates that I can find is the one given at the OPM press briefing on August 19, 2021, by Dr Bisasor-McKenzie.

That is now more than two weeks ago, two weeks in which we have moved towards the peak of the 3rd wave. In that time there have been dramatic increases in the number of cases, the number of hospitalizations, the number of deaths. But we are being told that with the reproductive rate reducing and the positivity rate down from the high of 54%, there may be glimmerings of hope. This is exactly the time at which we need a full update from the CMO or the National Epidemiologist. To place us now in the context of indicators that the MOHW has used for so long.

Why haven’t we had one of these updates, at one of the times when we perhaps need it most, since the start of the pandemic?

We have been getting these periodically. They have been a useful way of tracking changes. Whatever problems some may have with aspects of the data, this is a way of following what the MOHW says the position is, what they are using to base decisions on, what the government is basing decisions on.

There was no MOHW Covid Conversation yesterday; Thursday is the ususal day for them if they are being held. No presentation at the OPM press briefing on Wednesday. No presentation at Parliament’s Joint Select Committee dealing with Covid-related matters on Tuesday; Parliament is on summer break. These are the three places that the public usually gains access to these updates. A presentation with commentary by Dr Bisasor-McKenzie or Dr Webster-Kerr would be best. But if that’s not going to happen, post the PowerPoint online on the MOHW website. In fact, press briefing or no press briefing, Covid Conversation or no Covid Conversation, Joint Select Committee or no Joint Select Committee, post it at regular intervals on the MOHW website.

During a crisis such as this pandemic, information to the public is crucial. With this Delta-variant-fueled 3rd wave, with our public hospitals not offering anything but emergency services, with bed capacity overwhelmed, with dangerous oxygen shortages, we are in a crisis within the crisis. We need more information, not less.


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Covid Reflections: What has happened to genome sequencing test results?

A few months ago, as the media reported on the surge of Covid cases caused by the Delta variant in first the UK and then the USA, some of us in Jamaica began asking whether the variant was present in Jamaica. There is a great deal of travel to Jamaica from these two countries – residents, members of the diaspora, tourists – and it seemed only a matter of time before we got cases of the Delta variant here. Was testing being done for the variant by the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) and, if so, what had been found?

Responding to a question at the MOHW Covid-19 press conference on July 1, 2021, Chief Medical Officer Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie said the following:

“The Delta variant is something that we really are watchful for. We certainly don’t want to have that in country because we recognise that there is an increased transmissible rate and also that there is an increased chance of admission. And so in our population that is vastly not vaccinated, it does put us at risk. 


In terms of the testing for the variant, we did, we sent off 200 samples to PAHO testing laboratory in Brazil last week. We have another 92 samples that we have sent off to the CDC. I’m not absolutely sure that that went off this week, but that was the plan, to send off another 92 samples to the CDC and another hundred samples to PAHO to be tested in Panama. 


So we have three arrangements in place now. We really have had some problems in terms of getting the genomic sequencing done. And a lot of that delay has been because of transportation, not because we have not had willing partners to do the testing. But the transportation problems have delayed us getting the samples out, even to the extent that transportation routes, because they have to be longwinded, have resulted in damage to the samples that made not all of them at some times suitable for testing. So we believe that we have worked out something now, a more reliable transport method to get these samples out and we have three partners – the PAHO, CDC and CARPHA – to do the testing. So we do expect that at least every two weeks we should be getting out at least a hundred samples for testing.


The turnaround time once they receive the sample for PAHO, we have been told, is two weeks. The samples last batch went out last week. They are in receipt of the samples, so we are hopeful. We know that sometimes we get times and it may not turn out to be exactly that but we are hopeful that in another two weeks we will have that first set of results. And thereafter we should have results coming after.


We also have started to do some in house testing using kits that are donated by PAHO that enable us to choose the samples better for testing. So we have now a method in place where we can pick up whether or not there are mutations. So mutations can be quite varied and can sometimes not be of any significance at all. But we can now pick up if there are any variations from the normal wild type and those are the samples that we have been sending for testing for genomic sequencing to see if those mutations show any variants of interest or variants of concern.”

(Transcribed from PBCJ recording of July 1, 2021 MOHW press briefing)

This left me hopeful that, despite previous problems that had affected testing for variants, there was now a new system in place that would mean faster results that could help to inform government decisions and responses and help the public to better understand what we were facing. The time lag was still not optimal, but seemed better until we had the equipment needed to do genomic sequencing here.

However, there seemed to be a delay in the hoped for two week turnaround time for the results from PAHO and in a presentation on July 20, 2021, at the Joint Select Committee of Parliament dealing with Covid-19 and related matters, National Epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster-Kerr included this slide:

It showed that results had been received for samples sent to the CDC, but that no results had at that time been received for the samples sent to PAHO.

(I wrote about that presentation in Parliament in a post I made on July 22, 2021 – On the Verge of a Third Wave? – Jamaica’s Current Covid-19 Situation.)

And to date we have not had any clear update on what has happened regarding those and any other subsequent samples sent to any of the three labs for genomic sequencing. The most we have heard is comments during various media interviews or at press briefings that we are still awaiting results from overseas partners. And that there is no confirmation through testing that the Delta variant is here, but that from other indicators we can assume that it is.

At the press briefing on Monday, August 9, 2021, held to announce the latest changes to the Covid restriction measures, Minister Tufton said, in response to a question from Jamila Maitland about test results and the Delta variant:

“As it relates to the test for the variant strain, I think we are on record of saying that we do believe that it is here based on the movement between countries where it is the dominant strain. We have not yet confirmed its presence based on the test results that we have gotten to date. However, those results up to this point were results that were a little dated because it takes a while to get back the results from where we send them. We are anxiously anticipating the results of tests that would hopefully reflect more what is present in the population. But we continue to advise caution.”

Minister Chris Tufton, at OPM press briefing, August 9, 2021 (transcribed from PBCJ recording)

It is now nearly six weeks since Dr Bisasor-McKenzie outlined the new arrangements for genomic sequencing testing and it is three weeks since the presentation and discussion at the Covid Joint Select Committee in Parliament. We really need a clear update on what has happened with the new arrangements and why it is that we haven’t seen any further results other than the CDC results shown on July 20.

I assume that the MOHW will be holding a press briefing on Thursday and that would be an appropriate opportunity for a full update. Some questions I would hope to hear answered would be:

  • Since the list shared shared on July 20, 2021, have the results of any samples sent for genomic sequencing been received from PAHO, CDC and CARPHA?
  • If so, when were these results received and what did they show?
  • If any results were received, what were the dates on which those samples were collected?
  • What samples have been sent for which results are still outstanding?
  • What has been the cause of the delay in receiving the results for samples sent? What has been or is being done to remedy this?
  • What impact do delays such as this have on the Ministry’s ability to make plans and decisions?
  • Specifically, is it still the case that there is no confirmation by testing that the Delta variant is present in Jamaica?
  • What is the current status of plans to be able to do genomic sequencing here?

Let’s see.

PBCJ Recording of MOHW press conference held on July 1, 2021

PBCJ Recording of OPM press conference held on August 9, 2021


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On the Verge of a Third Wave? – Jamaica’s Current Covid-19 Situation

At the meeting of the Joint Select Committee on the Covid-19 Pandemic and Related Matters that was held at Parliament this week Tuesday (July 20, 2021), National Epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster-Kerr gave an update on Jamaica’s Covid-19 situation, using data as of July 19.

A copy of the slide presentation presented by Dr Webster-Kerr is available here:

Dr Webster-Kerr noted the increase in the number of new cases and the positivity rate that has been seen in the past couple of weeks.

She pointed out that the Reproductive Rate of the virus is once again over 1, now being at 1.1. This means that Jamaica is again experiencing exponential spread of the virus, albeit at a slow rate of spread. This rate could easily increase sharply without preventative measures.

One of the questions that has been asked frequently in recent weeks is whether the more contagious Delta variant is now present in Jamaica, particularly since it has now become the main strain of Covid-19 being seen in the UK and the USA, both being countries which see a lot of air travel with Jamaica. In Parliament last week, Minister of Health Chris Tufton said that genetic sequencing test results from samples sent to the CDC had not shown the presence of the Delta variant. When asked by Opposition MP Morais Guy, however, he was unable to say when those samples had been collected.

A slide in Dr Webster-Kerr’s presentation dealt with the samples sent for genome testing since December 2020 and indicated that the most recent results received were still those from the CDC.

However, in response to MP Guy’s question about how recent the samples were that had been sent for testing, Dr Webster-Kerr said that the samples sent to CDC on June 8, 2021, were mostly taken in May, with three from April and two from June. The samples sent to PAHO’s lab in Brazil on June 24, 2021, were mainly from April and May with a few from June.

This highlighted the point that the samples from which we have received results are too old to give any clear indication of whether or not the Delta variant is now in Jamaica.

Minister Tufton also responded on the issue of the samples and the Delta variant:

I think we have to be as straightforward with the country as possible, not just on the evidence based on the tests done but on the likelihood based on projections and circumstances. I think you raised an important point, Member [Morais Guy], on questioning the recency or age of the samples that were collected. And I think it’s quite clear that based on the dates around those samples the likelihood of picking up the Delta variant at that time would be less than it would be presently. And I think the most recent samples, the ones that are to go off, which would contain samples of June and hopefully July, would be our key insight, if you will, into whether the Delta variant is here.

These things normally not advisible to give a personal view but certainly based on the interactions that we are having as an open society with other geographic spaces that have the Delta variant as a dominant feature of those populations, I certainly believe that it is just more a matter of time before we detect that that variant is here. And I think the true, the same could be said for other populations throughout the world. This is the nature of the virus, this is how it spreads and once you are exposed with borders that are open of necessity, for trade or otherwise, you are going to have that level of exposure.

So I do believe that a more accurate reflection of what is present in the population as it relates to variant strains will come from the most recent batch of samples collected and I think the country should be advised of that and should continue to observe the protocols in anticipation that we are likely to have the Delta variant.

Minister Chris Tufton, Covid Joint Slect Committee, July 20, 2021 (Transcribed from PBCJ recording)

The Clinical Management Summary posted by the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) yesterday, giving the figures for Tuesday (July 20, 2021) added to the concerns being expressed. The number of new cases recorded was 111, which was the first time since May 27, 2021, that the number of new cases recorded in a day had gone over 100; it was 108 on that day. Also, the positivity rate was 16.1%; a rate higher than that had not been recorded since May 5, 2021, when it was recorded at 18.7%

In Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness made a statement regarding the Covid-19 situation and indicated that the Cabinet Covid-19 Sub-Committee would be meeting on the weekend and that if the trends continued, tighter restrictions might be announced. Such an announcement might be made next week Tuesday.

In an interview with Dionne Jackson Miller on RJR’s Beyond the Headlines yesterday evening, epidemiologist Professor Peter Figueroa expressed concern about the point that Jamaica is now at, with an increase in cases and a Reproductive rate of 1.1.

We are facing an imminent surge of the Delta, it’s probably the Delta variant and that can be very swift with an increase in cases. We need measures immediately….I’m concerned because we cannot afford to watch and wait. When you look at the data, when you start to get an increase in cases, it rises rapidly.

Professor Peter Figueroa, Beyond the Headlines, July 21, 2021 (Transcribed from recording)

There seems to be a general consensus that if the Delta variant is not actually here yet, it will be sooner or later. And there are many who see the recent increases as an indication that we are already on the verge of a third wave of Covid-19 in Jamaica.

PBCJ RECORDINGS OF PARLIAMENT

Meeting of Joint Select Committee on the Covid-19 Pandemic and Related Matters – Tuesday, July 20, 2021

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0YqkijcuaQ

Sitting of Parliament at which PM Holness made statement about current Covid-19 situation in Jamaica – Tuesday, July 20, 2021

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAjn-ewhgoI&t=391s