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HomeNewsLocal newsFree COVID Tests, Hotline Will End Friday, Health Department Announces

Free COVID Tests, Hotline Will End Friday, Health Department Announces

V.I. Health Department employees prepare free COVID-19 tests at a pop-up event in December 2020 on St. Croix. (Source file photo by Diana Dias)

Nearly four years after the territory recorded its first case of COVID-19, the V.I. Health Department’s Epidemiology Division announced Monday that it will shut down its hotline and end free testing for the virus on Friday.

Free vaccines for the uninsured and under-insured will continue, said Health Department Public Information Officer Christine Lett. Funding for that effort is provided through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Bridge Access Program, which expires in December.

The decision to end the hotline and testing follows the exhaustion of funding provided by the CDC in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department said in a press release. It also follows new CDC recommendations issued Friday that have eased restrictions around the virus, essentially treating it as an endemic viral illness similar to the flu.

“We are deeply appreciative of those in the community who have chosen to receive the COVID vaccine and those who continue to take precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus,” said Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion. According to the department’s last update on Feb. 26, there were 13 active cases in the territory.

“Our reported cases have remained low with minimal hospitalizations. However, COVID is likely here to stay, and similar to managing the influenza virus, prevention involves annual vaccination and proactive measures to curb transmission. The department is also continuing to examine the impact of Long COVID on public health in the Territory.”

Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the VIDOH’s Epidemiology, Laboratory, and Communicable Diseases divisions, alongside health care providers and facilities, have administered more than 523,000 tests, identifying 26,148 positive cases, the release stated. Additionally, they have issued weekly Epi reports to keep the public informed about key data and trends. The territory’s hospitals have reported approximately 500 COVID-related hospitalizations; a total of 133 fatalities have been recorded to date, it said.

The first confirmed case of COVID was reported on March 13, 2020, and the first death — an 85-year-old man on St. Thomas — was reported on April 5, 2020.

Territorial Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis advises individuals who suspect they have COVID to consult their healthcare provider or visit a laboratory for testing. “Additionally, home test kits are widely available at local pharmacies,” she added.

The COVID hotline played a crucial role in addressing inquiries about COVID guidelines, including travel, mask-wearing, social distancing, symptoms, quarantine and isolation, vaccination and treatment, and testing.

Encarnacion expressed gratitude to her VIDOH team for their commitment to ensuring public safety during the pandemic.

“To our dedicated team, thank you for your sacrifices to safeguard our community throughout this unprecedented time,” she said. “Each of you has risen to the occasion to save lives.”

Ellis added, “Thank you to the DOH team including not only epidemiology but also laboratory, communicable disease, our dedicated nurses, and the immunization team that tirelessly served the community throughout our COVID-19 outbreak to provide free services including testing, referral for medications, vaccinations, the hotline, and ultimately prevented infections as well as severe disease.”

The USVI has been recognized as a location with one of the lowest mortality rates in the nation and that is because of the incredible efforts of the DOH team, according to the release.

The CDC’s new guidance offers a unified, practical approach to addressing risks associated with various common respiratory viral illnesses, including COVID-19, flu, and RSV, which can pose significant health threats and strain healthcare systems, the Health Department said.

As part of the guidance, the CDC recommends core prevention measures and strategies:

– Stay up to date with vaccination to protect against serious illness, hospitalization, and death from flu, COVID-19, and RSV, if eligible.

– Practice good hygiene by covering coughs and sneezes, frequent handwashing or sanitizing, and regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces.

– Take measures for cleaner air, such as increasing fresh air circulation indoors, using air purifiers, or opting for outdoor gatherings.

The guidance also outlines additional prevention steps and strategies that individuals can adopt to further reduce the risk of respiratory virus transmission, including wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and testing to inform appropriate actions regarding treatment and preventing spread to others.

For updates on COVID cases in the territory, visit the Health Department website dedicated to information about the virus.

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