Dr Christopher Tufton yesterday expressed confidence in Jamaica’s ability to deal with the deadly coronavirus as he and health officials rubbished claims on social media that there was a case of the disease at University Hospital of the West Indies.
Tufton, the minister of health and wellness, told journalists at an emergency press conference held at the ministry in New Kingston just after midday that the public health sector has proven to be robust when threatened by international health crises.
“Let us not forget that Jamaica, as a country, with its existing infrastructure and existing personnel, has done what I believe is a remarkable job in managing external health risks,” Tufton said. “We have a fairly resilient system. Our personnel are adequately equipped, or they make themselves so, in the case of new threats, and I’m sure we will be able to manage this one.”
He pointed to past global epidemics that did not severely affect Jamaica.
“We’ve managed to keep yellow fever and malaria out. Obviously, you have a few cases, but not to the point where it becomes a crisis. We also had the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] virus, and the MERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome] virus, which were all comparable at least [to the coronavirus], and we have been able to overcome those risks,” he said.
He was quick to mention, however, that there may be margins of error, and a case might be able to come into the island undetected.
“We will always have a risk of an imported case, and we have to prepare ourselves to deal with it,” he said. “But I don’t want the population to believe that we are less than adequate to study, understand and address the issue. We are making these statements because we think the public must be kept informed, and we try to be as transparent as possible in doing so.”
In the meantime, the Government of Jamaica has issued a travel advisory to Jamaicans travelling to and from China.
“Persons in China who are planning to travel to the island will be advised or asked to remain in China. Where persons were planning trips to China, whether Jamaicans or Chinese, we are asking them to postpone, at least for the time being, those travel arrangements,” he said, adding that he had discussed the matter with the Chinese ambassador to Jamaica.
He quickly clarified that the travel advisory does not undermine the friendship between Jamaica and China, neither does it mean that Jamaica is closed to tourist traffic.
“The discussion this morning with the Chinese ambassador was a mutually respectful one. It was open and transparent. It explored all the possibilities. It recognised the friendship that Jamaica shares with China in a number of areas, such as business, culture, education, and all the other areas that are good for both countries. The decisions taken around the travel advisory are based on that recognition of our friendship. I do not want this to be interpreted, in any way, shape or form, as a hostile position,” he said, while also imploring Jamaicans to refrain from being discriminatory of Chinese nationals living here.
He added that quarantine protocols will take effect for people in transit to Jamaica from China.
“Persons will either be quarantined in specially designed facilities, or within their home environment, depending on the particular circumstances and depending on the risk assessment that would be done,” he said.
Meanwhile, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Karen Webster Kerr sought to assure the public that all health facilities have room for some level of isolation in the event that it becomes necessary.
“Because of how the virus is transmitted it can be treated at the major hospitals,” she said. “The facility at National Chest Hospital will not be used immediately, but we are revitalising that matter.”
This new strain of coronavirus is of a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS and SARS was first confirmed by authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on January 7, according to the World Health Organization. Up to yesterday, the virus had claimed the lives of 106 Chinese people and had infected more than 4,500.
The United States, Taiwan, Australia, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Canada, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, and Germany have reported less than 10 cases each since then. No deaths have been so far reported outside of China.