St Lucia’s low COVID-19 testing leaves the population vulnerable to future variants

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Minister for Health, Wellness and Elderly Affairs, Moses Jn Baptiste and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Sharon Belmar-George

By Caribbean News Global contributor

CASTRIES, St Lucia – Saint Lucia has documented a decline in the number of reported cases during the fifth wave, according to the ministry of health, wellness and elderly affair; however, low COVID-19 testing leaves the population vulnerable to future variants as collected and processed samples are well below the ability to test up to 2,000 persons in one day.

Therefore, the decline “may not be real” due to a lack of testing and processed samples that are well below the ability to test make it nearly impossible to get a clear sense of the true number of COVID-19 cases in Saint Lucia.

COVID-19 reporting and updates 

Late Monday, February 28, 2022, the ministry of health reported 6 new cases of COVID-19 from a total of 86 samples collected February 26, to February 27, 2022. And according to the reported boilerplate method, “as of February 28, there are 22, 694 cases of in the country with 150 active cases. This number of positive cases makes up 6.98 percent of all the samples processed on that date.”

In a prior release Monday from the minister of health headlined, integrating the covid-19 response into the health system, said:

“The daily infection rate for the last 7 days is 10.2 per 100,000 population per day which represents a 60 percent reduction from last week, with a 20 percent average testing positivity rate and a transmission rate of 0.6,” chief medical officer Sharon Belmar-George, added: “We have noted a total of 359 COVID-19 deaths. We have 13 positive COVID-19 cases admitted at the respiratory hospital, two cases are critically ill and one case is severely ill, [February 28]. The majority of the deaths are COVID-19 related due to other associated chronic health conditions.”

COVID-19 surveillance systems alongside public health warning systems are likely to capture and help control infectious disease from common health events/outbreaks, [ mass crowd events, hurricane, floods, earthquakes, etc.,].

Meanwhile the “changes to the contact tracing, home monitoring, vaccination sites and respiratory clinics location changes will be shared this week,” says the CMO, and where “most of the other services have been restored to normal operations,” stated: “We appeal to all organizations, public and private sector to ensure the strengthening of all public health protocols. We continue working with the various sectors to reduce restrictive protocols without increasing health risks,” said CMO, Sharon Belmar-George, February 28, 2022.

With either of the boilerplate reporting methods from the minister of health, a reduction in testing should be of concern.

A reduction in testing is not a smart strategy taking into consideration the surveillance systems that have been put in place for COVID-19. Testing is absolutely critical to detecting new variants and understanding how the virus is evolving. Testing embraces activities aimed at saving lives and preserving the health of people.

Early warning and immediate response systems require prevention mechanisms, decontamination and communication measures, critical to limit exposure to inadequate treatment and help curtail widespread transmission.

This is of particular importance in small and unvaccinated populations [180 000], 238 sq miles like Saint Lucia, with burdens on an overly strained health system.

According to CMO Sharon Belmar-George, February 28, 2022:

“This past week we continue to register low numbers of cases, the seven day average approximation continues to indicate a steep downward trend in the epidemiological curve. We note reductions in most of the public health indicators.

“As we move towards living safely with COVID-19, the ministry of health, wellness and elderly affairs has integrated many aspects of the COVID-19 response into the general functions of the system.

“This will facilitate the strengthening of the other public health and primary care programs which have been reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The isolation, quarantine and testing protocols have already been communicated.”

As of February 28, 2022, a total of 52, 284 individuals have been fully vaccinated; 6,767 are partially vaccinated and 6, 731 have received their booster shot, reads the ministry of health press release.

Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre continues to advance vaccination against COVID-19. With less than 30 percent of the population inoculated, much of the socio-economic rebuilding remains in jeopardy, prime minister Pierre explained:

“I am very, very concerned about it. I was one of the first people who spoke about following the science and I still think people should follow the science. But there is a very low intake of vaccines and that is stopping our forward progress because many things depend on you being vaccinated,” he said.

Meanwhile, low vaccination coverage in many countries of the Caribbean must be urgently addressed to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect the most vulnerable, warned PAHO Director, Carissa F. Etienne, with health care workers and the elderly remaining particularly at risk.

The director also urged countries to work with trusted voices and community leaders to create spaces for dialogue to address concerns around vaccination.

“Dialogue, trust and outreach are the tools we must rely on to get more vaccines into arms and ultimately save lives,” the director added. “The pandemic is not over, and a new variant can emerge at any point. We have the power as a community to overcome these barriers and reduce the toll of this virus on our people,” said director Etienne.

However, behaviors vital to stopping the spread of COVID-19, depend on mutual trust to be effective, as many jurisdictions attempt a return to some kind of normalcy.

The study, by Professor Tim Lenton and Dr Chris Boulton from the University of Exeter, and Professor Marten Scheffer from Wageningen University, is published in the Journal Scientific Reports.

Professor Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute, said:

“Our results add to evidence that trust within society benefits resilience to epidemics. Building trust within communities should be a long-term project for all nations because this will help them cope with future pandemics and other challenges such as extreme events caused by climate change.”

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