At the announcement of a press conference for today by the Prime Minister, it was widely anticipated that there would be the official closure of schools and ports of entry to Belize. Prime Minister Barrow addressed these possibilities and announced that the time will come where these decisions will have to be explored, but that time is not going to be today.
Rt.Hon Dean Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize: “We will continue to do everything in the effort to keep Belize safe. In this context we have to be prepared at any moment to respond appropriately as the threat evolves. Accordingly decisions will have to be taken on the following; whether or not to continue to allow cruise ships to come, whether or not to officially disallow large gatherings, whether or not to close schools, whether or not to ban air travel, whether or not to restrict freedom of entry at our land borders. These are not easy decisions to make given the obvious and astronomical impact they would have on us and on the economy- especially of course tourism. But nothing is more important that preserving the health of our people, nothing is more important than saving Belizean lives. I did not want to announce any such decision today without putting our country as well as those that visit and service Belize on notice but I advise now that immediately after this press conference I will be meeting again with the health team and speaking to the Leader of the Opposition. I will of course also be talking to tourism and business stakeholders, shortly thereafter I would expect to announce when any or all of the sited measures would go into effect. Meantime we want immediately to discourage all non essential travel and we want to prescribe the start of what is called social distancing. Ladies and gentlemen I want to close on a note of reassurance. I want to ask everybody to remain calm, I wish not to be facile, not to be simplistic because I cannot underestimate the looming danger but neither can I sell short our ability to get through this at a time such as now government is called upon to be the nation’s guardian and each of us is called upon to be the other’s keeper. It is together therefore that we face this crisis. It is together that we will address this crisis and it is together that we will overcome this crisis. Belize will emerge, Belize will rebound, God bless Belize.”
The various social media platforms have lent to the wide panic and misinformation being circulated in Belize. Every day our news center is swamped with reports of confirmed cases in the country. While we do make our checks with health officials, the Ministry of Health is amping up their access to the public via a webcast and other methods of communication in an effort to slow the surge of rumors and speculations in the country.
Rt.Hon Dean Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize: “As the key implementing agency the Ministry of Health already has in place a COVID-19 plan. The task force will refine and further develop this plan as we go along but one of the elements already agreed on is a communications strategy to ensure the delivery to the public of accurate, up to date information regarding COVID-19. I believe yesterday there was the first of a series of what might call webinars where the DHS and other of his professionals answered live questions from the public, that sort of thing will continue. There will be a communications expert on the team to ensure as I said quality, reliable, up to date information. Internationally COVID-19 is constantly evolving thus the government is also working with our external partners to coordinate responses and to keep updated on the latest information and best practices. We will continue to do everything in the effort to keep Belize safe.”
As the head of the newly formed task force, Dr. Marvin Manzanero did a review of what steps have been taken since January, who their sources for information and guidelines are and how they plan to continue the efforts.
Another part of the COVID-19 controls has to do with the availability and capabilities of testing for the virus. It has been weeks now since Belize has gotten the necessary equipment for testing which according to Dr. Manzanero has been going well.
Dr.Marvin Manzanero, Director of Health Services: “We have the ability to test in country, we have gotten the assurance, I think the second batch of test strips arrived or are arriving this afternoon and we have been told we are getting three sets of test kits for next week, that’s through PAHO, that is a collaboration we are having, we are one of the few countries in the region that were able to do in country testing more than a month ago now. There is a definition of who is a suspect COVID-19 case which is why when you see us address the media we don’t use that term so loosely, the media might say that but a suspect is somebody who has been in an area where there is ongoing transmission and has flu like symptoms and that’s the person you routinely would want to screen. The first test you’re going to run ins the panel of the normal viruses that you have. If you have a strong suspicion which is taken up by the team it’s not a single decision taken, then you will run the COVID-19 test and I think the seven samples we drew on Monday I know even the British citizen who came out negative we said still run a COVID-19 test so we are not doing routine screening for COVID-19. It’s not that people who have the flu like symptoms just show up and demand a COVID-19 test it doesn’t work like that there’s a process flow that’s determined by the lab personnel, there is a clearly articulated chart based on international guidelines, based on international definition and that is how the screening process is going to be so even is – and the person who sends in the sample also needs to write down the entire epidemiological history so that whoever is doing the lab sample can do the necessary screening test for COVID-19. I think it’s thirteen samples that we have done, all of them are negative but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t come out positive for other viruses because that is the screening process that we will follow.”
Reporter: And the time for the results ?
Dr.Marvin Manzanero, Director of Health Services: “Well it’s taking up to eight hours, sometimes it’s a little bit longer simply because they have to run the first panel of the normal flu viruses and then COVID-19. I think only the samples we did on Tuesday we asked for it to be inverted because we didn’t want to stay up late that night tracking a result so we ran COVID-19 first and then we ran the other flu panel samples but routinely maximum eight hours.”
Reporter: And in terms of the system, how does it work? If I go to a private physician he then refers me to where? What is the protocol?
Dr.Marvin Manzanero, Director of Health Services: “We would swab that sample. I think one of the samples that got sent to us was from private practice because they would also have been alerted to what the definition would be so it would become applicable to everybody. It’s not just the public sector.”