The fresh threat of a scarcely understood variant has not triggered any plans by this country’s COVID-19 authorities to consider placing further restrictions at the borders, as tourism officials prepare for a massive boost from an English cricket tour of the West Indies early next year.
Despite the stern warnings from this country’s medical practitioners and the implementation of stricter measures in other territories, Chief Medical Officer, the Most Honourable Dr Kenneth George declared that in Barbados, a “wait-and-see” approach would be maintained.
Whilst acknowledging that the Omicron variant has been quickly spreading across many of Barbados’ main source markets, the public health practitioner called for “vigilance” instead of “panic”.
“We have opted for a more wait-and-see approach because some countries went ahead and did complete bans, partial bans and we are aware of that, but banning the movement of people is a method for only delaying possible transmission. It is not an absolute and good public health measure and therefore we will continuously examine the evidence, we will come to the public letting them know,” Dr George declared at a press conference on Thursday.
“We are on a heightened state of alert with respect to our borders. However, our protocols have not changed to date. I am very aware that some countries within the region have gone extra miles and that might depend on their peculiarity in their population, but the public health team will continue to give sound advice to policymakers with respect to our directions in a state of omicron,” he added.
Over the last two weeks, the variant, which was first discovered in South Africa, has spread from six countries to 30, including the neighbouring United States of America. It is still unclear how virulent, transmissible, deadly, or responsive to current vaccines the variant is.
And, president of the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners, Dr Lynda Williams has called for a review of a recent decision that allows vaccinated passengers to enter the country without being tested on arrival or quarantined.
But Dr George declared that even with the first U.S case identified recently in California, there was no need for “drastic changes”.
Furthermore, he explained that with the successful hosting of three major events to mark the country’s transition to a republic, officials were closely examining the possibility of permitting other events for persons who are either fully vaccinated or tested prior to attending.
“You may be aware that we are going to be having test matches and T20 [cricket] matches. England will be here in Barbados in January. I am confident that we can have a safe space, but people need to know that if you are going to have a place that is relatively safe and the likelihood of transmission is reduced, they will have to comply with the directives given,” said Dr George.
“In the first instance, persons will need to be vaccinated and in the second instance, if they are not vaccinated they have to be tested to enter that space. I am very serious.
“I was happy to be at the event on Tuesday. Why? Because it was an atmosphere of celebration and I said it was something that Barbados should be striving towards… I am certain that we can have many such events, providing that the public complies,” the CMO added.
Director of the Best-Dos-Santos Laboratory Dr Songee Beckles explained that staff at the public health centre were equipped with the necessary tools to identify possible samples of the variant that would be sent to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) for genomic sequencing.
“We have some specific primers that look for what we call the ‘s’ gene dropout or the s gene failure of this particular variant. We do have reagents in stock in the laboratory that we can look for that particular dropout gene for our testing and that can be used as a proxy to determine if Omicron might be here,” Dr Beckles disclosed.
“That gene is also associated with the variant out of the UK. So we would have to confirm whether it is the variant from the UK or whether it is the new variant,” the lab director added.
In the meantime, Dr George, lamenting the recent deaths of two COVID patients in their 20s, made another impassioned plea for vaccination, setting a target of 65 per cent of the eligible population by the end of January.
“Several families are grieving at this time around the republic and going into Christmas and I believe that this did not need to occur and why it didn’t need to occur is because the preventative measures which we have invested in and told you about over several months still need better actions,” said Dr George.
“I am again asking individuals, because of our current situation and because persons, particularly with comorbid conditions are dying at a very young age, please let common sense prevail.”