COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus Disease) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus that first surfaced in Wuhan, China. It is highly contagious and can be easily transmitted through droplets of an infected person who may sneeze, cough or simply exhale. Coronavirus was declared a pandemic by world Health Organization on March 11, 2020.
COVID-19 did not catch the Virgin Islands offguard. In late February, the Ministry of Health and Social Development, charged Mrs. Dawn Leonard, Health and Safety Coordinator with the Department of Human Resources, with the task of conducting sensitization training in the Public Service as well as some statutory bodies and the private sector. The training included information about Coronavirus and the internationally-recognized best practices to help mitigate against what was recognized by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’.
As the situation evolved rapidly, it signaled a need to advance local efforts. The Public Sector COVID-19 Task force was established by Deputy Governor, Mr. David Archer with Mrs. Leonard at the helm as Chair. The Taskforce comprised of key Public Services takeholders such as Human Resources Managers, Communications Specialists, and Environmental Health Specialists. The Taskforce was charged with supporting the Ministry of Health and Social Development’s national response to COVID-19 for the Public Service. At that point, the WHO had not declared COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’, but the Public Service was already positioning to launch a local response. When the Coronavirus was declared a ‘pandemic’ on 11 March 2020, the BVI was already positioned
Unfortunately, COVID-19 was importedto the Virgin Islands through residents that returned home. Low as the numbers were, with a count of three, the Government took drastic measure to prevent the Coronavirus from spreading in the Territory. All daycares, preschools, other school and afterschool programmes were mandated to close on March 18. Shortly thereafter, the Health Emergency Operation’s Center (HEOC) instituted a national 24-hour curfew (lock down) for a period of two weeks initially.
With only three cases in the Territory, massive efforts were undertaken to conduct contact tracing, and a mandatory quarantine was enforced. The Territory waited to see if any more cases would emerge during the 14-day period of lock down. With the announcement of another identified case, the HEOC deemed it necessary to extend the curfew. As time passed, curfew restrictions were slowly lifted as the Virgin Islands prepared to return to some semblance of normalcy.
A Social Distancing Taskforce was created and tasked with helping the phased reopening of the Territory by ensuring that businesses had all safety measures in place, such as hand washing stations, hand sanitisers, glass barriers, and social distancing markers in place to safely reopen. This was achieved through thorough inspections of all businesses approved by Cabinet to re-open. Once again Mrs. Leonard took a leading role where she served as co-chair of the Social Distancing Taskforce. Regarding the opening of the Private Sector Mrs. Leonard said, “I was particularly impressed with the Private Sector during this phase, as the majority of businesses demonstrated a commitment to working with the Government to safe guard their customers and staff. But once again, it was the hard working, dedicated public officers who were re-assigned from their regular roles to serve as inspectors.”
“These inspectors worked very hard to ensure that businesses were inspected and ready to be opened. This meant conducting inspections into the night and on consecutive weekends. They did it with a sense of pride, professionalism and commitment to the process. They are truly some of the unsung heroes during this part of our history,” she stated.
Mrs. Leonard was directly tasked with the responsibility of reopening the Public Service. She drafted the approved Public Service Occupancy Clearance (PSOC) document which guided the phased reopening of the Public Service. “It was a very exciting time in our history to be able to bring to bear all of my training and expertise to help my country in such a significant way,” she stated.
“I remember the 15-hour-plus days and the early morning start of my day that was required to ensure a smooth reopening,” she added.
The Public Service was also subjected to inspections to ensure their compliance with the mandated requirements for successful reopening. As with the Private Sector, Mrs. Leonard commented that she was impressed with many Departments that were ready for inspections in short order to ensure Government business continued. She shared that the Department of Human Resources’ new initiative ‘Health and Safety Star Programme’, was also fast-tracked and used to facilitate the reopening of the Public Service. The Health and Safety Star Programme, is an initiative of the Health and Safety Unit within the Department of Human Resources, designed as part of the implementation of the Health and Safety Policy that was approved by Cabinet in April 2018, which recognizes health and safety champions individually and by Departments and Ministries.
While we continue our phased re-opening, I encourage persons not to become too complacent, but to remain vigilant and continue the measures recommended for our collective safety as we will now have to live with COVID-19, not in a ‘shelter in place’ mode, but as we seek to bring back normalcy to our Territory.
The Deputy Governor issued the Health and Safety Star Programme Compliance Certificates to Ministries and Departments who were deemed compliant with the prescribed measures, and on May 4th, 2020, all priority Departments were on schedule to be re-opened. It is often stated that disasters or crises bring opportunities, and COVID-19 was no exception. Mrs. Leonard was very excited to share an innovative idea for the ease of operations while conducting inspection.
She recommended to the Social Distancing Taskforce and the HEOC to have the application used during the delivery of care packages tweaked to be used to track and facilitate inspections of the private Sector. She shared the idea with the Deputy Governor and Mr. Troy Dawson, Town and Country Planning and Department GIS Manager, who worked closely with the Health Emergency Operations Center on various task. The concept was quickly embraced by the HEOC and instructions were given to advance its development. The application allows the Environmental Health Division to capture the location and status of businesses that were reopened. It also helped to log information more easily in a database for statistical purposes.
“What is so exciting about this app is that the benefits to the Public Service go beyond COVID-19. This is just another example of how we are forced to be innovative during our most challenging times and create greater possibilities for the future”, she further stated. COVID-19 was the first modern pandemic on this scale that the BVI has had to respond to, however, despite the size and limited resources of the Territory, Mrs. Leonard is convinced that the BVI’s coordinated response to COVID-19 is a model for many larger countries. “Our quick, decisive response may very well have saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives. I commend the Government of the Virgin Islands, the Ministry of Health and Social Development, the Deputy Governor’s Office, the Governor’s Office and all the supporting parties, civic groups and volunteers who played key roles in protecting our beautiful Virgin Islands from this threat.” Mrs. Leonard stated.
Mrs. Leonard’s closing statement was a caution, “While we continue our phased reopening, I encourage persons not to become too complacent, but to remain vigilant and continue the measures recommended for our collective safety as we will now have to live with COVID-19, not in a ‘shelter in place’ mode, but as we seek to bring back normalcy to our Territory.” Mrs. Leonard emphasized that she was blessed to be a part of the responding populace who gave sacrificially to
ensure the safety of all in the Territory during this historical period.