Three individuals have now tested positive for COVID-19 in the territory, and Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. announced at a press conference Thursday that he is tightening local response efforts – including limiting mass gatherings to 10 people or less – in an effort to “stay on the offense” and protect against further spread.
The territory has 32 “persons under investigation” for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Of that amount, eight have tested negative, with 21 results still pending. According to Bryan, local hospitals will only be testing those most likely to have contracted the virus, either because they have traveled or have come in contact with someone who has been exposed to it.
Officials say that additional efforts are necessary to keep the number of cases low. Bryan announced that starting Saturday, public gatherings or in-person events over 10 are prohibited, which also applies to bars and restaurants. The restriction will be strictly enforced, the governor added, saying that the only exemptions so far have been for big box stores like Plaza Extra or Kmart, who are able to abide by 6-foot social distancing requirements, and funerals, which he said should only be attended by immediate family for now.
“While we understand that this is very difficult for our community, especially our businesses, we must cooperate to prevent any future spread,” he said. A ban on Easter camping at public beaches, a local tradition, is also in effect.
Finally, from March 23 through April 6, all government services will be restricted to essential services only, and Bryan said department and agency heads will now begin the process – since the protocols needed now are different from those in effect during hurricane season – to determine which employees are essential.
A 60-day extension on the renewals of all licenses – including driver’s licenses, registrations and business licenses, among others – will be in effect, and Bryan said all employees will still be paid as usual. Meanwhile, federal benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid and SNAP will be available online.
Infrastructure and Contingency Plans
At this point, flights are still coming into the territory and Bryan said he doesn’t anticipate a federal mandate to shut down airports. While passengers coming in have “slowed to a trickle,” there are residents being sent home from the mainland, in particular students whose colleges and universities have closed for the semester. Other than handing out information about the virus, there is no screening being conducted, which Bryan said helps the territory preserve necessary resources.
“It is important for people to understand that we are not like anywhere else where you can just call someone to come in and help,” he said. “We have to be careful about how we use our resources and that we are expending them on things that have proven not to work, like checking fevers. It just isn’t something that we can afford to do.”
Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, who has been at the center of local response efforts, echoed after the press conference the need for the territory to pace itself and hold back from exhausting resources before it is necessary. The territory has about 12 hospital beds available on each island but is making space to accommodate additional patients should an outbreak occur, she said.
Meanwhile, other areas, such as the V.I. National Guard armory on St. Croix, are being looked at as additional quarantine sites, and the territory does have the ability to fly patients off-island. The government’s early declaration of a state of emergency has also provided access to federal resources should the situation become dire, officials said.
Still, residents should refrain from seeing a doctor if they are not seriously ill, officials say.
“There is no treatment, only supportive care for those requiring hospitalization,” Encarnacion said, adding that there are about 65 general patients in the hospital on St. Thomas and 45 on St. Croix, which have a total of 55 ventilators – both full-time and one-use – available, with more on the way.
There is also currently no testing equipment in the territory as yet, but Encarnacion said the territory’s director of pharmacy, Dr. Brent Ellis, is coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control and other federal partners to make the U.S. Virgin Islands – which is considered a more “isolated area” – a top priority and candidate for mass testing.
“But right now, we have to keep our resources available for those individuals who need them most, along with the space we have available so they can be isolated or quarantined,” Encarnacion said. “That is why it is so important for the public to adhere to these social distancing requirements, to not go out if they don’t need to and to stay at home if they are sick; and remember, it is only for a short period of time. It might seem like a hard thing to do, but if we flatten the curve like everyone says, we will actually be able to come out of this much sooner.”
Asked for her observations on how residents are responding, Encarnacion said she has noticed a dramatic decrease in people on the streets.
“When it hits closer to home and it is in your backyard, people tend to pay attention,” she said. “That is what we are seeing now.”