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| Ebola Scare Off the Coast of Belize City!
Oct 17, 2014
The possibility of a threat from the deadly Ebola virus placed the nation on edge on Thursday night, but tonight there is a sigh of relief. The scare started when it became known that a lab technician who may have had contact with fluids from Ebola victim, Thomas Eric Duncan, was travelling on the Carnival Magic which had sailed into Belize in the morning and was anchored at Stake Bank Caye. Some of the passengers had disembarked, but the technician and a travelling companion were self quarantined. The Prime Minister became aware of the situation at about nine-thirty a.m.; the hours that followed were full of anxiety and there was pressure from the U.S., who wanted the couple brought to shore and airlifted from the P.G.I.A. Tonight, we look at the many fronts of this story starting with our coverage of the cruise ship’s arrival.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
A seven-night Western Caribbean cruise which departed Galveston, Texas on Sunday called to port in Belize on Thursday morning, after leaving Mahogany Bay, Honduras several hours earlier.
Tracy Panton, C.E.O., Ministry of Tourism
“Yesterday, we had just a little over thirty-seven hundred passengers and crew onboard.”
Also on the Carnival Magic was an unidentified passenger, an employee of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, whom it is believed may have had contact with specimen from now deceased Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan.
“Traditionally, we have eighty-five percent disembarkation rate from the ship.”
While a majority of those visitors landed at the Fort Street Tourism Village, the traveler, as well as another unnamed individual, for health and safety reasons, voluntarily isolated themselves from the ship’s population. Sometime later, an overseas phone call was placed to C.E.O. Audrey Wallace.
Audrey Wallace, C.E.O., Ministry of Finance
“The Office of the Prime Minister received a call advising that the [US] State Department would like to have an urgent call with the C.E.O. in the Office of the Prime Minister. That call came in at 9:40 a.m. and it was a conference call that included the US State Department in Washington, where a doctor was online, the US Embassy in Belize and myself. I was informed that a healthcare worker from the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital who was listed as low-risk for Ebola by the Center for Disease Control in the United States was onboard a Carnival cruise ship that landed in Belize in the morning.”
The exposed staffer, who may have handled Duncan’s bodily fluids eighteen days ago, is yet to exhibit symptoms of the deadly virus. However, in the wake of several mistakes made by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in dealing with Duncan’s case, there has been a significant change in approach.
“They explained that the CDC had updated its requirements from self monitoring for these low-risk persons to active monitoring which would require them to be in the United States to be monitored. They explained that the employee had been checking daily for a temperature or any other symptom of the disease and had none. The doctors on the cruise ship examined her and confirmed that she had no temperature or any other sign or symptoms. The healthcare worker, along with her traveling companion agreed to self quarantine on the ship. I was further advised that it had been seventeen days since the worker would have possibly been exposed to the Ebola virus.”
With an incubation period of up to twenty-one days, she would still not have been free of consequences from exposure to the Ebola virus. That being said, a request was made by the U.S. State Department to have them medevaced from the Phillip Goldson International Airport.
“I was then asked for the government to allow the passenger and her companion to disembark and flown out of the P.G.I.A. on a private plane. They explained that they were taking this action out of an abundance of caution and not because anyone was at risk. I informed them that I would get back in touch. The prime minister was informed of the situation and the request. Immediately he expressed deep concern over facilitating the movement of the two passengers from the cruise ship to the P.G.I.A. although fully aware that the disease can be spread only when an Ebola patient is sick. He was most concerned about exposing any Belizean to any potential risk, no matter how farfetched it may be.”
Notwithstanding those concerns, immigration officers at the port of entry at FSTV were tasked with handling the pair’s travel documents. That was done under strict instructions.
Maria Marin, Director of Immigration
“The immigration officer was advised at all times not to have any handling of the passport.”
Meanwhile, discussions were being held with health and coast guard officials to examine the possibilities of the initial request.
“The Office of the Prime Minister sought the advice of the Ministry of Health and subsequently entered discussions with them and the coast guard to explore the logistics of moving the two passengers in a way that would pose no risk to any Belizean.”
When those possibilities were all exhausted and found not to be satisfactory, Prime Minister Barrow would adamantly decline the request of the U.S. State Department, despite a personal appeal from Secretary of State John Kerry. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.
| Carnival Magic Passenger is Quarantined Onboard Cruise Ship
Oct 17, 2014
Prime Minister Dean Barrow was also at this morning’s press conference to quell fears. He reiterated that if there had been any way at all that he could have assisted the U.S. without risk, he would have. And there were discussions entertained at first on getting these quarantined persons on a plane which would fly into the Philip Goldson International Airport on Thursday. But then, the U.S. notified Belize that the plane would not be able to arrive until Friday. That notification included a request that the persons be held in Belize City overnight. PM Barrow states that at that point, the discussions were for all intents and purposes ended.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“The logistics of such an operation in my view would have exposed Belizean health workers, Belizean security agents, Belizean frontline officials. I accepted the absolute good faith of the US in saying to us that the risk was almost nonexistent. But there had to be some risk was in fact confirmed by their anxiety to get the person in whom they were interested quickly out of Belize and into the US. Because I had been alerted to the situation sometime after 10; after I concluded some meeting, I tuned in for a while to some hearings that they were taking place in the US and what emerged from those hearing served to confirm my own reservations, my own doubts. It is clear that even in the US with all their capacity, with all their expertise, there is still a lot of unanswered questions with how this thing gets transmitted and with respect to the last two nurses that become ill. There doesn’t seem to have any kind of certainty as to what protocols were breached. And clearly in terms of the Centre for Disease Control, their response, their approach, their treatment of the issue seems to be a work in progress. Very unfortunate I repeat we have utter and complete sympathy for the United States and the problematic nature of what unfolded in there. But I have to be first and foremost concerned about Belize, my country, out country and our people. In that kind of a context as I said; once the ground had shifted to the extent were they were no talking about a next day operation and keeping the people on Belizean soil it seemed to me that my answer had to be no.”
| P.M. Barrow Says No to Medevac from P.G.I.A.
Oct 17, 2014
Barrow says that he thought that was the end of the matter, until he was informed later in the day that the plane was in the air. But despite the unwillingness of the U.S. to accept Belize’s official position, he says the window of opportunity, if it ever existed, had slammed shut. There was one final and very powerful move to force that window open, as no less than the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, contacted the PM at around seven thirty and tried to persuade him that there was absolutely no threat.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“He insisted that there really was no threat and I would not be putting Belizeans at any real risk. I stuck to my line which was that in the circumstances we could not take any chances. He did ask whether I would consider, whether I would explore the possibility of their sending a helicopter that would land on the deck of the cruise ship and then take the two passengers straight across to the P.G.I.A. In other words, he thought that an option could be explored that would mean that no Belizean would come into any kind of contact at all with these passengers. I said well have your people tell us what would be the logistics of that. That alternative was not…the tender would be handled by the carnival personnel, bring the passengers to the Fort Street Tourism, an embassy car would pick them up and take them to the airport. I said but those tenders are Belizean they are operated by Belizean operators and they remain in Belize so the alternative suggestion was the life boat. That would go back to the ship be handled by carnival personnel, go back to the ship and so there would be no question of any possible contamination. But that will still leave the US driver and the embassy vehicle. I am giving you all these details because I want to repeat yet again that if it had been at all possible to do this thing in a way that could have absolutely eliminate any possibility of any risk to Belizeans I would have been willing., The fact is after the most anxious consideration I concluded that the original position had to stand. Because I could not let the circumstances be possible to do what the Americans were asking without exposing some Belizeans to some degree of risk.”
Barrow says that half an hour after the call from Secretary of State Kerry, he instructed C.E.O. Audrey Wallace to inform the US that his original decision stood. That decision was communicated…the plane which had arrived at the P.G.I.A. by that time left without passengers and by ten-thirty, the Carnival Magic had departed Belizean waters.
| West African Visitors Banned from Landing in Belize
Oct 17, 2014
A regional response to the threat of Ebola in the Caribbean earlier this week, prompted several island nations, including the government of St. Lucia and Jamaica to restrict the influx of visitors from hot zones in West Africa. On Wednesday, prime ministers Kenny Anthony and Portia Simpson-Miller embargoed the arrival of passengers from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in St. Lucia and Jamaica, respectively. Thursday’s scare has forced the Barrow administration to follow suit. This morning, during the P.M.’s press conference, Minister of Immigration Godwin Hulse outlined a similar plan of action, but extended the ban to include Nigeria. Where it concerns cruise ship arrivals, all passengers alighting the vessels will need to present travel documents to indicate their journeys during a thirty-day period.
Godwin Hulse, Minister of Immigration
“We have immediately issued a stop on the issuance of visas to persons coming from the West Africa area who we consider high risk. And those countries will be Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and any other country that the ministry thinks has now been affected. Nigeria is a special case because although it’s a Commonwealth country it requires visas and even though they have declared that they are free we consider the persons traveling from Nigeria a risk. Sierra Leone, on the other hand, does not require any visa to come to, Sierra Leonean citizens do not visas to enter Belize so we will issue a travel ban on persons coming from Sierra Leone. Our embassies are being advised immediately, the airlines are being advised of this decision forthwith. In addition, persons from whatever nationality who have visited that area of West Africa within the last thirty days will not be allowed to land in Belize and the airlines will be advised accordingly. The way we are going to handle the cruise ships, we have established a protocol, as you may or may not know. There is a team that boards the cruise ship to screen the manifest and the passengers who want to land in Belize and as I understand it, I do have my immigration team here and my C.E.O., I recognize them, as I understand it persons who would travel beyond the tourism village would be the ones who would present themselves to immigration for the necessary clearance to land. Persons who would remain within the vicinity of the tourism village were only ticked off on the manifest. Effective immediately, that protocol has changed. Every single person who will disembark from a cruise ship the passport of such persons will be reviewed by immigration to ensure that no person has been in the high risk area of West Africa within the last thirty days.”
| Ministry of Health Outlines Comprehensive Response to Ebola Threat
Oct 17, 2014
The immediate implementation of those new immigration policies is one prong of G.O.B.’s preparation for the threat of Ebola. The Ministry of Health, in the face of Thursday’s wake up call, has also been forced to step up their game. The reality is that even the superpower U.S.A. has been caught off guard by Ebola, so it’s not like Belize can realistically claim full readiness. But there are some steps being taken in the short term, and Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Health Peter Allen says the response to the threat is evolving.
Peter Allen, Chief Executive Officer, Ministry of Health
“A screening form for all passengers has been developed and is being implemented and an isolation facility is being provided at the Phillip Goldson International Airport for further screening for passengers who may be considered at some risk due to the surveillance forms. The Ministry of Health has provided a Hotline and the hotline is 629-5604 and we are working with B.T.L. to provide a toll free number as soon as possible to assist in this capacity. We have developed a rapid response team to follow up on places and we have received permission already to hire another ten Public Health inspectors to strengthen our response at the border and points of entry. We have prepared a team for contact tracing and they will be available immediately to contact anybody who shows up on the surveillance issues. We are providing further treatments, further advice on treatment and infection control. Our own guidelines are being constantly reviewed. We have identified sites were isolation may be used if possible. We have our own healthcare team here, again, Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Manzanero to answer any questions. The personal protection equipment kits that we have are those that were purchased for H1N1. They can be used in this instance but they are not ideal, the ideal personal protective equipment that is recommended by the World Health Organization not available in the very short term and so we have sent in the procurement request for those kits. Dr. Dicosio will probably be able to tell you how long that procurement time will be. But in the meantime we will make sure that our people have all the protective equipment that is available.”
| Quarantine Area to be Set Up at P.G.I.A.
Oct 17, 2014
The order for seven hundred and fifty hazmat kits has already been placed through the Pan American Health Organization. The order will be some time in coming, since those kits are being sold out across the world, for obvious reasons. But Belize isn’t waiting on those kits – G.O.B. is looking to set up a quarantine area at the Philip Goldson International Airport and at Price Barracks, and holding cells at all border entry points. Persons presenting signs and symptoms of infectious disease can be kept there for analysis pending transfer to main facilities or strategically located quarantine areas.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“Any person presenting will be held in isolation at the isolation cell, you would hate to use the term cell but any other description defeats me, escapes me right at the moment. The person will be held there until Ministry of Health can transport them to the quarantine centre in Belize City. We are also looking at other possibilities for citing a quarantine facility. We are getting Mennonite houses to put in various spot but there is already an area a t the therapy wing or therapy unit at the KHMH. I was very distressed because that is where I have visited and gotten some very good treatment and now they are taking it away…sorry I didn’t mean to make light of it. But that has already been identified. We are looking at the possibility of the Cleopatra White. Two rooms there are converted. We don’t want to stand down the services there but in the meantime two rooms are being prepared and if we had to use then of course all services would be cut off there.”
Dr. Ramon Figueroa, Director of Planning & Policy Analysis Unit
“We’re looking at ensuring that the facilities we are identifying meet the standards for quarantine and isolation. And that is why when the Prime Minster asked us today how quick could we have that set up? Although I wanted to say within a day or two reasonably it will take us at least a week or more to get everything in place. These are basic standards that are set up internationally and we have to ensure that those things are put in place before we even have it as a treatment centre. In the mean time as the PM has said should we have another situation like we had yesterday, we need to have an immediate place where we can deal with someone and that has already been identified.”
The Ministry of Health is also carrying out training for officers stationed at the border entry points, so they will be able to recognize and efficiently deal with any possible cases in those zones.