Minister for Health and Social Development
Honourable Carvin Malone
Remarks Covid-19 Vaccination and New UK Strain
I extend Greetings here in the Virgin Islands, throughout the Region and the World.
Since the declaration of the COVID-19 virus as a Global Pandemic, with the unswerving support of Cabinet, the House of Assembly and the formation of the Health Emergency Operations Center, as Minister for Health and Social Development, with the support of dedicated professionals throughout the public service and the team at the BVI Health Services Authority, we have been managing the COVID-19 situation and response in this Territory.
While this has been a mammoth task, we have remained diligent in our efforts to support you, the people, in our commitment to protecting Lives and Livelihoods. It has been our pledge to inform you every step of the process.
As of 28th January, 2021 there are 9 active cases of COVID-19 in the Territory. Our certified laboratory at the Dr. D Orlando Smith Hospital has reported testing of 18,947 persons. Since our last report on 22 January, 2021, 4 new positives have been identified for a total of 141 reported positive cases in the BVI, since the beginning of the pandemic. During the same period 12 cases have recovered for a total recovery of 131cases. The Territory has recorded 1 death.
We are NOT OUT OF THE WOODS! VIGILANCE is now the KEY WORD!
As we monitor the COVID-19 situation in the Caribbean and around the World, there remains a serious cause for concern with this dreaded disease. New strains are emerging in several countries, including United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. The lives and the economies of the world are being affected in measurable ways.
Cabinet continues to meet regularly and in emergency sessions as we make several decisions to keep this Territory and you, our people, safe.
That is why in a most recent Cabinet meeting, in light of new strains of COVID-19 being prevalent in South Africa and Brazil, a decision was taken that in addition to the United Kingdom and the Dominican Republic, to implement a travel ban on persons traveling from South Africa and Brazil to the Virgin Islands.
As a reminder, the ban was put in place to promote public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and does not apply to nationals, Belongers, residents, work permit holders, persons permitted to reside in the Territory, diplomats, and persons employed by Government and Statutory agencies. A 14 days quarantine would be mandatory in these circumstances.
Cabinet has advised the renewal of the curfew Order to 15th February 2021.
I will now report on the “COVID-19 VACCINE INTRODUCTION PLAN”.
On the 30th of December, 2020 the United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for supply in the United Kingdom approved AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford/Vaccitechs Covid-19 vaccine candidate AZD1222. A number of Governments around the world including the Virgin Islands have been waiting patiently for the UK regulator to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine given its efficacy and ease of incorporation into existing immunization program infrastructure and the fact that it does not require special considerations for storage, or administration.
This approval was based on independent advice from the Commission on Human Medicines and a review of Phase II data on safety and efficacy.
With this announcement distribution of vaccine within the UK started in the New Year and it is expected that tentatively vaccine will begin to be available in the Territory after its arrival on February 4th, 2021.
The UK Government has 100 million doses in total and AstraZeneca is working closely with Public Health England and the National Health Services England to support the deployment of vaccine across the UK and its Territories.
The Ministry of Health will therefore work closely with Public Health England, CARPHA and PAHO/WHO to support a comprehensive program in the Territory involving local stakeholders to make the vaccine available on a voluntary basis to residents.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is recommended to be given in two separate doses with an interval of four to twelve weeks between doses. The regimen has been shown to be effective in preventing symptomatic Covid-19, with no severe cases, or hospitalizations more than 14 days after the second dose.
The AstraZeneca, vaccine was co-invented by the University of Oxford and its associated company, Vaccitech and made available at cost. Research studies have shown it to be 70.4% efficient in preventing symptomatic Covid-19 as well as severe disease, or hospitalization with a 90% efficacy in a subgroup receiving a half dose followed by a full dose. The recommended regimen will likely therefore be the half-dose followed by the full-dose regimen with the higher efficacy.
It is approved in persons over 18 years of age and pregnant women are excluded. Studies in these subgroups will continue and approval may be granted in these groups depending on results at a later date. Published safety data indicates that this vaccine is well tolerated and has no serious safety events confirmed related to the vaccine.
Safety data will continue to be collected and monitored as the vaccine is rolled out world-wide including in the BVI. Work on a national program to make the vaccine available to residents on a purely voluntary basis has started in earnest and will be led by the Ministry of Health and involve collaboration and communication with a wide cross-section of stakeholders across government, private, and non-government sectors.
While there may be vaccine hesitancy initially, communication to address concerns and barriers will be of utmost importance in addition to using innovative strategies to reach and offer vaccine to all targeted populations.
Vaccination of the World’s population is an important strategy to end the continued menace of Covid-19 to the World. The Territory must not only do its part in this effort but also for our own sakes to reduce the impact of this pandemic on the Territory, its inhabitants, and our economy. In the coming weeks more information will be forthcoming.
Cabinet has last week approved the appointment of a steering committee for implementation of Covid-19 vaccines in the Territory led in the Ministry of Health by the Chief Medical Officer and involving all the relevant stakeholders in the Public and Private Sector as well as community groups, NGOs and faith-based organization.
A number of key sub-committees of the steering committee have also been appointed to include:
- a vaccine administration sub-committee charged with managing the distribution of vaccine and training of health care providers,
- a communications sub-committee whose responsibility is managing the all communications related to vaccine administration, and
- a stakeholder and community mobilization which is charged with mobilizing community support and advocacy with respect to vaccine administration in the Territory.
The Government has taken this approach to ensure a comprehensive program of vaccine roll out. The team will begin communicating early and putting plans in place for delivery of vaccine in a phased approach to the public as follows:
- Phase 1- Healthcare and frontline workers
- Phase 2 - People with underlying conditions that put them at risk of severe COVID-19 disease or death, and persons over 60 years.
- Phase 3 - Essential workers at high risk of exposure (eg. teachers, school staff, workers and persons in care homes, shelters, prisoners and prison staff, and hospitality workers)
- Phase 4 - Young adults
- Phase 5 - All remaining residents
While the Government will adhere to the above it is important to understand that as far as possible all persons who want access to the vaccine must and will be afforded that opportunity.
The Government is committed to providing this vaccine without cost to the public through the public health system and also making it available through private providers and will seek to ensure that access through the private sector will be at reasonable cost. Members of the public are asked to remain patient and calm as the committees do their work to ensure a safe and efficient roll-out of vaccine across the Territory.
The first tranches of vaccine donated by the UK Government are expected to arrive in the Territory on February 4th when 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca AZD1222 will arrive in the Territory.
In keeping with the phased approach vaccine will soon be made available after this. It is expected that future tranches of vaccine will continue to be delivered based on the uptake and disbursement of this initial batch of vaccine.
The Ministry of Health is in the process of reviewing the necessary information systems to allow persons in the general public to register their interest to be vaccinated. Persons are asked to remain patient and it is the intent of the Government to ensure that everyone who wishes to have the vaccine is able to have access to it.
In the coming days and weeks members of the public will hear more about the Covid 19 Vaccination program as the program rolls out and the communication campaign switches into gear.
At this point I would like to publicly thank the members of the health teams for their unflinching dedication and perseverance. These include persons in the Ministry of Health in particular the Public Health Department and Staff of the BVI Health Services Authority. The Government is also grateful for the assistance of the UK Government and in particular the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, Public Health England, and Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy of the UK Government for their assistance and generous gift to the people of the Virgin Islands.
To reiterate vaccination is not a magic bullet against Covid-19 but an important weapon in our arsenal to combat the virus and its impact on the Territory and wider global community. While vaccination will reduce the chance of death, severe disease, and hospitalization from Covid 19 it will still be important for us to continue to adhere to social distancing and other protocols.
As the rest of the world immunizes, we here in the BVI need to do our part and immunize ourselves against Covid 19 as well.
Only through ensuring that sufficient persons are immunized against Covid-19 and together with the social distancing and other protocols can the world not only reduce the impact of this virus but begin to think about its eventual elimination.
With widespread immunization globally but in particular in the BVI can we begin to think about returning to some degree of normalcy and restoring our society and economy from the ravages of Covid 19
The Ministry of Health is also mindful of concerns surrounding new variants of Covid-19 identified around the World and in particular the United Kingdom. The regional public health agency CARPHA has established the capacity to conduct typing of Covid-19 strains.
The BVI has therefore already identified samples to be sent for special genetic typing along with other countries in the region for the purpose of identifying circulating strains in the Territory and the region. The new strain is currently thought to cause more infections and not necessarily more severe disease. Current evidence is that PCR testing, treatments, and vaccine are unchanged as compared to the other circulating strains.
However, if introduced into the Territory it has the potential to cause more disease and greater strain on already tight resources. Numerous countries have already taken the decision to restrict air traffic and entry of persons from the United Kingdom.
The Caribbean Public Health Agency CARPHA recently wrote to all member states highlighting the impact of new variants of Covid 19 on the Caribbean. Since the emergence of the UK variant at least six other variants have emerged and have been identified in 60 countries globally.
CARPHA therefore has been strongly urging member states to enhance community surveillance and the implementation of public health control measures including quarantine and isolation, wearing face masks and coverings, physical distancing, hand sanitizing, and avoidance of crowds and gatherings.
CARPHA also reminds countries that while most cases of Covid are mild this can easily result in cases spreading quietly in the community and then resulting in a sudden increase in hospitalization and deaths. It is therefore important for countries to remain vigilant and ensure adequate surveillance and control of areas where persons may congregate and gatherings.
The Ministry of Health continues to urge residents to adhere to the established protocols of social distancing, hand hygiene, and other established protocols for the prevention of Covid 19 infection in the Territory.
I wish to admonish everyone to please remember to take COVID-19 seriously! Wash your hands, sanitise, wear your mask, and keep your distance.
These protocols have now become an essential of our everyday lives.
Let us reduce the impact of the COVID-19 virus. With widespread immunization globally, in the Virgin Islands we welcome this opportunity to help eradicate COVID-19.
I wish to also remind persons to contact the COVID (Medical) Hotline at 852-7650 to be assessed by a health professional if you experience any symptoms related to COVID-19. Common symptoms include – fever, cough, headache, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, muscle aches, or difficulty breathing.
Thank you for your attention and your full cooperation.
May GOD continue to bless our People and these beautiful Virgin Islands.