COVID-19 Update (22 March 2020)

22 March, 2020

Good evening everyone.

And a special good evening to the people of Bermuda and a special thanks. I begin these remarks for our frontline healthcare workers, all of our emergency workers and all of those who are doing so much over the past two weeks to make sure that Bermuda is equipped to handle this global pandemic.

As we look around the world, healthcare systems, governments and communities are fully engaged in combating the most significant pandemic in this modern era. Almost hourly we can see the consequences of this aggressive virus on the global community and the world’s economy. Borders do not constrain this impact and as a planet we are engaged in containment of transmission.

Here at home we have taken unprecedented steps to protect all of Bermuda and especially those of our citizens who are seen as the most vulnerable. In a few moments the official record of test results will be updated to reflect that Bermuda now has six confirmed positive cases of COVID-19.

Out of the four additional cases, one was a close family contact of a passenger on the BA2233 flight on 8 March, 2020 and one arrived on the BA2233 flight on 17 March. Two people arrived in Bermuda by a private jet. Those are the four new cases.

If you were traveling on either of the British Airways flights here is what you should know.

For those of you who were on the March 8 flight, your self-monitoring period ends today.

If you were on the flight on the March 17 your self-monitoring period ends March 31. If you have not been unwell during this period, there is nothing else for you to do.

If you have respiratory symptoms or are feeling unwell, contact your doctor. Explain that you were on one of those flights and you want medical guidance. Do not go to your doctor’s office or the hospital. Please call ahead.

Earlier today I met with the medical leadership of the Ministry of Health, the Hospital and the local testing facility who is conducting our local testing here on our island.

The ability to test locally is adding a critical piece to our ability to isolate cases of Covid19, trace any contacts and most importantly enforce a regime that will limit any possible community transmission. Just as this is a new and complicated disease, the testing regimen is a complex one and one that is in short supply the world over. As I indicated previously, we have received a limited number of testing supplies and more is on the way. The simple fact is: the more we test, the more we know. And it is expected that there will be more positive results in the coming days. The issue is not if there will be more positive results, the issue is how do we handle those.

Our healthcare professionals have significantly increased the number of testing being conducted locally and by extension this will allow them to trace the contacts of those persons who are found to test positive for this virus.  Thus far locally we have tested 41 persons. We are awaiting the results of the last 30 which were done yesterday and today, however on the first round, 11 were tested and there was only 1 positive.

Though I’m confident our ability to test will help us contain and spread, the healthcare work is only one part of this.

We must mount a whole-Island effort to contain this virus. The term ‘social distancing’ must be taken seriously. Observing these new rules of how we interact with one another, will save lives.

The Minister of Health signed an Order on Friday closing all schools, tourist accommodation swimming pools, gyms, beauty salons, spas and barbers; as well church services (except funerals), sports club activities and concerts with more than 50 people.

To further reduce the risk of community spread Cabinet has approved the following further actions with effect from 5pm tomorrow, Monday March 23rd:

  1. The Minister of Health will extend the closure Order to include retail stores, cinemas and bars and restaurants limited to take out service only. 
  2. Enforced social distancing should will now be limited to gatherings of no more than 10 people. 
  3. The Royal Bermuda Regiment and the Bermuda Police Service will be engaged in operations directly aimed at enforcing required quarantine of persons who arrived in Bermuda since 17th March. 
  4. Essential businesses only will be permitted to open and will be required to adopt the aggressive social distancing guidance now in place and on reduced hours. These businesses are banks, food suppliers or supermarkets, pharmacies and gas stations. 

These outlines and guidelines are taken from best international practice as recommended by the Pan Atlantic Health Organisation.

It is very important for Bermudians to note that the penalties that are in force for any breaking of mandatory self-quarantine are a fine up to $6,000 for a first offense and in the case of a second offense a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or both. 

I can also advise that the Cabinet met today and approved the package of unemployment benefits to be provided to those of our citizens who are out of work as a result of this pandemic. The full details will be released to the public tomorrow but I can say that the unemployment benefit will be for eligible employees not currently on financial assistance and will provide a payment of 60% of their gross earnings up to a maximum of $500 per week.

There may also be the opportunity to engage unemployed persons in some of the administrative tasks that are necessary to stay on top of the fight against COVID-19. With some clear basic training some of our people who are not working right now may be able to assist.

It is important to recognize that this is akin to a community effort and all of Bermuda is fighting a battle against the COVID-19 virus.

What I want to remind Bermudians, and this is very important;

  1. If it’s not an emergency, an absolute necessity, or if you’re not required to go to work, STAY AT HOME;
  2. Check on our seniors by phone or some other means that does not bring you into contact with them;
  3. If you are self-quarantined stay there. Do not leave your home or wherever you are quarantined;
  4. Wash hands. Wipe surfaces frequently and make sure that you keep social distance.

We are a communal and tactile people. We think nothing of gathering for lunch, happy hour or sometimes just to visit. And those interactions usually come with handshakes, hugs and kisses. We just can’t do that right now. We must adjust and we must continue to adjust immediately. This new normal may include the term distancing but the united effort required can serve to bring us closer together.  

It is important to note that these new measures that were announced today are to ensure that we can continue the aggressive testing which we have started. Internationally, the World Health Organisation and others have shown that if you do aggressive testing and aggressive contact tracing, you can break the chains of transmission.

What Bermuda and the example that Bermuda is trying to follow are the countries that have been successful in controlling the spread of this virus; references to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. We have the ability to aggressively test here on island and we are going to make sure that we aggressively test to make sure that we can control the spread of this virus.

The EMO met earlier today and I will give an update:

Flights to Bermuda

An announcement from the Ministry Tourism and Transport was issued this afternoon that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) in New York Air Traffic Control Centre temporarily suspending aircraft approach and departure control services, air traffic is presently unable to operate in Bermuda’s airspace.

This service, which is essential for flights to safely arrive and depart from Bermuda, has resulted in today’s Delta Air Lines and WestJet flights, departing for Bermuda from Atlanta and Toronto respectively, being cancelled.

The temporary suspension of aircraft approach and departure control services affects all aircraft departing and arriving from Bermuda.

However, we have just been informed that service is expected to resume at 7:30am tomorrow, which will not affect the inbound cargo flights which are expected to be arriving tomorrow.

Government will continue to provide reduced operations at the airport until that service is resumed.

Education

Our public schools will launch a remote learning strategy in the upcoming week, with options for a variety of learning activities for our students. 

These include learning packets; engagement using various learning platforms; the use of online learning applications; posting of information on school websites; and various means of communication with parents and students. 

The Department of Education has started to send out surveys to its key stakeholder groups which include: department staff, parents, and teachers to find out if there are any internet and technology challenges in working remotely. Stakeholders are encouraged to respond quickly to the survey as this information will help the department to understand what further support is needed for internet access and/or technology support.

The Department thanks the 612 parents/guardians who since 4:30 pm today have provided feedback to the survey.

The Department of Education also emphasizes that although the school buildings are closed for the delivery of educational services to groups of students, teachers and staff, who prefer the faster internet at school or those teachers who have limited data packages at home, can work from their respective school site, while practicing social distancing.

The Bermuda Hospitals Board has indicated that in keeping with best international practices, to protect all staff, KEHM has implemented a no visitor policy except in the following instances: the partner of a woman who have given birth, the parents or guardians of unwell children and close family members of those who are near the end of life.

These restrictions are in place to help ensure the health of medical professionals, to keep COVID-19 out of the hospital and away from patients.

The public is asked to help keep the public areas and lobbies at the hospital as empty as possible and to practice social distancing at all times. Anyone who needs medical attention should contact their doctor first and if they need to go to the hospital, call ahead.

If you have a medical emergency call 911.

The Bermuda Hotels Association today indicated some 1,400 hotel employees have been made redundant as a result of property closures. Tomorrow morning the Minister of Labour, Community Affairs and Sports will outline the criteria and eligibility for the unemployment relief benefit.

The COVID-19 helpline was launched at the end of last week for members of our community who have questions and concerns. Some 400 calls have been made to the helpline since it launched last Thursday. The phone number is 444 2498.

On the issue of social needs, the Government is liaising with third sector and registered charity partners to coordinate and provide assistance to those members of our community who need additional support. These will be coordinated at Cabinet Level by the Minister of Public Works.

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