BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Nov. 26, 2020– On Thursday morning, November 26, the Minister of Health and Wellness, Hon. Michel Chebat, along with Director of Health Services, Dr. Marvin Manzanero; the National Surveillance Officer in the Ministry of Health, Ms. Lorna Perez; and Dr. Julio Sabido held a virtual press conference to address the question that is being asked all around the country: what is the newly elected Minister’s plan to combat COVID-19?
Since the appointment of Minister Chebat, there have been 54 COVID-19-related deaths, which, according to Hon. Chebat, is not a problem the new administration created, but one that they have inherited.
After their preliminary audits, the Ministry has found that there has been “no clear strategic plan with a budget; there were no clear testing strategies, up to the end of July, and MOH headquarters was still deciding who got tested.” Minister Chebat also stated that the “processing of swabs for PCR was and is still centralized. This has resulted in a serious backlog; currently there is a backlog of approximately 2,182.”
Hon. Chebat pointed out that people being tested are not being given their results in time, which has had a direct effect on what could be considered a third wave of COVID-19 in the country.
The Minister also stated that back in April, both the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) and the IAEA offered to assist the previous administration to increase testing – an offer which was apparently rejected.
Under these circumstances, it is clear that things in the Ministry are graver than they seem, as hospitals are now being “saturated” and “overwhelmed” with patients. There are also currently a number of patients having to be treated at home due to the lack of space in the hospital ICU’s, and Government hospitals are not fully ready to accommodate further increase, the Minister said.
Additional information is that the former GOB enacted a series of budget cuts, including to the budget of the Ministry of Health (MOH), which was still expected to combat the pandemic. The overtime benefits for health staff were cut, restrictions were placed on the hiring of health staff, and there has been only a limited supply of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE’s) available for health workers, according to Chebat.
The new Ministry of Health has thus designed a new plan to try, as best as they can, to address the already overwhelming situation.
This new plan involves an “injection” of fifteen million dollars into the system, which has been allotted by the Ministry of Finance to facilitate the stringent measures that will now be put in place. These measures include implementation and use of rapid tests in all hospitals with clear testing protocols. All regional and community hospitals will now be conducting rapid tests.
Test sites will be expanded throughout the country and will include stationary clinics in the Orange Walk District (the People’s Stadium, Louisiana area, Blue Creek, August Pine Ridge, San Felipe, Guinea Grass and San Pablo), as well as mobile clinics, which will be placed in San Carlos, Indian Church, Trinidad, San Lazaro, Yo Creek, Fireburn, Shipyard, San Antonio, Trial Farm, Chan Pine Ridge, Carmelita, Santa Marta, San Jose Palmar, San Estevan, Douglas, San Juan and San Luis.
Mobile clinics will also be deployed in Independence Village and Bella Vista, Placencia, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Red Bank, San Juan, and Trio in the Stann Creek District. The public should expect a rise in the number of positive test results due to this ramping up of testing via the rapid tests.
There will also be additional hiring of lab technicians, lab aids, data entry clerks and contact tracers. There will be active surveillance by the MOHW teams in private businesses; and supplies and consumables for the current extraction machine, as well as an additional extraction machine, will be procured.
Additional doctors, nurses, specialists, and support staff will also be hired for deployment to all regions to provide local hospitals with surge capacity.
The MOHW will also seek approval for overtime for more general practitioners, registered nurses, nursing assistants, midwives, operating room staff and specialists. Approval will also be sought for increased oxygen supply procurements.
With regards to public health measures, as of Saturday, November 28, a curfew will be implemented from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. for a period of 21 days. The ten-person limit on gatherings will remain in place, and there will be work-from-home orders and staff shift rotations for public and private employees.
Food packages and stipends will be offered to those families who are under quarantine. Provisions of hotel rooms will be offered to persons who cannot quarantine at home, and the MOHW will engage in at-home assessments to determine the adequacy of isolation rooms.
The Police Department, under the leadership of Commissioner of Police Chester Williams, will assist as well by strictly enforcing quarantine measures. Accommodations and other logistical assistance will be provided to healthcare personnel. Also, a health education campaign will be initiated.
Restaurants with outdoor facilities will be able to host up to twelve persons at a time. Those that do not, will only be allowed to provide takeout service.
Gatherings in public places are prohibited, and stores and other businesses will be required to have six-foot markers and will only be allowed to have twenty persons at a time in their establishments.
Minister Chebat ended his presentation with a plea to Belizeans to take personal responsibility in containing the further spread of the virus.
As of Wednesday, Belize is battling with 2,308 active cases of COVID-19, with a test positivity rate of 25.7%. There have been thirteen COVID-19-related deaths recorded between Monday and Thursday, and an overall death toll of 129 persons as of Thursday as well.