The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of governments and ministers of health held an emergency meeting on Sunday in Barbados to establish a regional protocol for dealing with the COVID-19 virus.
They said a regional protocol is critical to avoid widespread fear and panic over coronavirus.
As well as government officials, the meeting was attended either in person or via video link by the Pan American Health Organisation; Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA); Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency; CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security; representatives of cruise lines Carnival Corporation, MSC, Norwegian Lines and Royal Caribbean; as well as the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association and the Cruise Lines International Association.
The protocol, which was drafted by CARPHA last week, allows for individual states to put in place any additional measures if required.
It established defined roles and responsibilities of all entities in effective communication between CARICOM governments and the cruise line industry.
Cruise officials confirmed at the meeting that they are willing to screen passengers and work with the protocol established by CARICOM.
Chair of CARICOM and Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley said leaders needed to be prepared to protect their region.
“We must act together to get through this,” Mottley said.
Speaking at a press briefing following the meeting, she said one of the key aspects of concern was “not only to define the responsibility and obligations of individual partners, whether it be member states, the cruise industry, the public health officials, but also for us to address the issue of capacity”.
Mottley said that international and regional health officials had made it clear that “it is likely that there is no part of the world that will be spared, but … having listened to the science and expertise from PAHO and CARPHA, it is clear it is entirely within our capacity … to manage and contain” coronavirus cases, as had been done during outbreaks of SARS, Zika, chikungunya, H1N1 and other diseases.
Mottley said PAHO had reported to the meeting that there is a one-in-five chance of finding severe cases. “Even then, of those, the number of persons going onto [the intensive care unit] are very limited and likely to be a person over 80 or [those who] have serious underlying conditions of a chronic nature,” she said.
She added, “Our ability to scale up surveillance at ports of entry, identify quarantine and isolation facilities, enhance training of frontline staff and strengthen laboratory capacity within our countries is really at the centre of what we mean when we talk about building capacity.
“Against that background, we will continue to be guided by science and medical officials in this matter, so we can at all times protect the health of our citizens and all visitors to our territories, while at the same time, protect the economic stability of our region and our countries, given the fact that panic and fear can have a greater deleterious impact, greater negative impact on our countries than the epidemic of COVID-19 itself.”
PAHO director Dr. Carissa Etienne gave an update at the briefing on the number of international and regional cases of coronavirus. She said that the World Health Organization, on Friday, had raised the risk level for all countries to ‘very high’ in relation to COVID-19, but had stopped short of naming the outbreak a pandemic.
She pointed out that several Caribbean countries, including the Cayman Islands, have the capacity to test for COVID-19.
Officials at the meeting also discussed how to balance effective responses to the coronavirus outbreak with growing the cruise-line industry in the region.
Antigua Health Minister Molwyn Joseph said at the briefing that effective pre-boarding screening of cruise-ship passengers will not only assist tourism, but would enable ministries of health “to be able to make speedy decisions that will not delay the execution of the ships entering the port and departing as well”.
Roy McTaggart, Cayman’s finance minister, and other health and tourism officials, represented the Cayman Islands via video link.