So far there is no sign that the quickly spreading Coronavirus, COVID-19, has reached the Virgin Islands, but the Department of Health and other government officials are keeping a wary eye out for it and preparing for the worst.
Territorial Epidemiologist Esther Ellis said Wednesday that there have been no suspected cases of the disease on the islands. If and when any cases are identified in the region, the goal is to contain them and prevent the spread of the disease, she said.
“We have the ability to collect samples,” – swabs and blood samples, Ellis said. Those would then be sent to the Centers for Disease Control for testing.
Symptoms include a cough and respiratory difficulties. People with those symptoms who have traveled within the last 14 days to an area where the virus is known to be active should call 911 or the Health Department at 340-718-1311 on St. Croix or 340-774-9000 on St. Thomas.
“We can pick them up” and bring them in for treatment, Ellis said. Health can also test them. Anyone who tests positive, if well enough, can self-quarantine in their own home.
The number of areas across the world where the virus has been found are increasing almost daily.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, said Wednesday that cases of COVID-19 have now been confirmed in 37 countries, that includes the United States.
In a public mission briefing Wednesday, he called the disease “a public health emergency of international concern” which is the highest level of alarm for WHO.
However, he cautioned against labelling it a pandemic, and he said progress is being made in containing its spread.
The first report of the virus came from Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019. As of Wednesday, there were a reported 78,190 cases in China.
There were also 2,790 known cases outside of China and 44 deaths, Ghebreyesus said.
The good news is that the disease peaked and plateaued in China between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2, and it has been declining there ever since, he said. Fourteen other countries that reported cases have not seen a new case in the past week and nine countries that reported the disease have not seen a new case in two weeks.
“We are in a fight that can be won if we do the right thing,” Ghebreyesus said.
The right thing seems to be quarantine. China essentially locked down the entire city of Wuhan for weeks. Italy has closed off some of its small cities where the disease was identified. Passengers on some cruise ships were denied entry to international ports and travelers to the U.S. who were believed to have been exposed to the virus have been placed in quarantine camps for two weeks. An Associated Press report this week included information that Denmark, which has seen no cases, has set up two quarantine centers in former military barracks in anticipation of their need.
In the Virgin Islands, local authorities are relying on federal agencies to identify potentially infected individuals who may subsequently travel to the Caribbean.
“CDC [and] Customs and Border Protection are conducting enhanced entry screening of passengers who have been in regions with confirmed human to human transmission within the past 14 days,” Ellis said. The CDC quarantine station is in close communication with the V.I. Health Department “to inform us immediately of any potential travel cases including via cruise ship.”
Could the V.I. prevent them from entering the territory?
Ellis said, “We always have the right to refuse docking, and we’ve done that in the past,” because of other infectious diseases.
She said Health is coordinating with Tourism, Port Authority, Border Protection, Customs, Emergency Management Services and Fire Service, Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency Maritime Services, Coast Guard, hospitals, clinics and private health care facilities.
Official advice to avoid catching/spreading COVID-19 is basically the same as for many diseases, including colds and flu: Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly; cover a cough by coughing into the bend of your arm; and if you are sick, stay home away from others.