~ MPs ask about vaccination strategy, vaccines ~
PHILIPSBURG–Some 1,606 persons in St. Maarten have registered to take the coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, February 15, Collective Prevention Services (CPS) head Eva Lista-de Weever told Members of Parliament (MPs) on Tuesday.
Lista-de Weever’s statement came during Tuesday’s Central Committee meeting of Parliament that discussed a draft national ordinance amending the National Ordinance on Public Health.
The amendment seeks to add COVID-19 to the list of Group A diseases, which currently includes smallpox, polio, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and viral haemorrhagic fever.
According to Lista-de Weever, the amendment would make it possible to apply legal means to enforce mandatory reporting by health professionals and laboratories if they suspect or identify a person who may have contracted COVID-19. Additionally, the amendment would mandate forced isolation for confirmed cases, as well as mandatory source and contact-tracing, mandatory quarantine for those who came in contact with the disease, and provisions to invoke mandatory isolation and quarantine in a designated care institution.
This amendment does not make vaccinations mandatory, said Minister of Public Health, Social Development, and Labor VSA Richard Panneflek.
Lista-de Weever’s presentation also included an overview of the country’s COVID-19 epidemiological situation and vaccination strategy.
As of noon Monday, St. Maarten has recorded some 2,001 coronavirus cases. Most of these cases were within the working population, said Lista-de Weever, with the gender breakdown being 45 per cent male and 55 per cent female.
The largest affected age-group are 30–39-year-olds, with more than 450 recorded cases, followed by 40–49-year-olds with more than 350 cases. Almost 350 cases have been recorded in those between 50 and 59 years old, while more than 300 cases have been recorded in those between 20 and 29. A little less than 150 cases have affected 0–19-year-olds, and about 300 have affected those above 60 years old.
The country’s incidence rate – that is, the number of new infections per week – have been decreasing, said Lista-de Weever. St. Maarten saw 42 new cases last week, which was half of the 88 recorded in the week before. “We are seeing a slight downward trend, which is encouraging, and we continue to urge persons to take the necessary public health measures,” she said.
This contrasts with raising rates in December 2020 and January 2021, which was the result of holiday festivities. COVID-19 cases peaked in August 2020, said Lista-de Weever, adding that this reversed after certain categories of night-life businesses were forced to close in August and September 2020.
Although the French-side has recorded four imported cases of the United Kingdom (UK) variant of COVID-19, St. Maarten has yet to detect this strain or the South African and Brazilian strains. Lista-de Weever said St. Maarten is currently sending up to 40 samples per week to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment RIVM in the Netherlands for genotyping.
As for the country’s vaccination strategy, government has instituted a Vaccine Management Team (VMT) which is headed by vaccine manager Henk Veerdig. Alongside him, pharmacist Frank Chang Sing Pang leads the team for vaccine storage, cold chain management and logistics; geriatric specialist Dr. Marga Nonneman leads the team for vaccination administration locations and patient journey; Marc Boasman leads the team for monitoring and reporting; Bart van der Meijden leads the team for public engagement and communications; and Police Chief Carl John leads the security team.
The VMT usually meets twice per week, said Lista-de Weever.
The priority vaccination groups are, in order, healthcare professionals, persons over 60 years old, persons between 18-59 years old with underlying medical conditions, workers in essential and critical industries, and persons between 18-59 years old without underlying medical conditions.
Vaccinations can begin as early as next week for healthcare professionals and persons over 60 years old, said Lista-de Weever, adding that the freezing and cooling equipment needed to store the vaccines are in place, have been validated by RIVM and are functioning. The type of vaccine will be BioNTech/Pfizer.
Vaccinations for those between 18-59 years old with underlying medical conditions may begin in April, while workers in essential and critical industries may start in June. The last group – those between 18-59 years old without underlying conditions – may start receiving vaccines in July. Lista-de Weever stressed that these dates are preliminary and subject to change.
Unlike the first two priority groups, the latter groups may be inoculated with other vaccine brands, such as AstraZeneca, CureVac, Janssen, and Sanofl. This is also subject to change, said Lista-de Weever.
The aim is to vaccinate 70 per cent of the population before the start of the hurricane season, she said.
Panneflek reiterated that vaccines will be available to all residents regardless of immigration status, and collected data will remain confidential and will be only used for health purposes.
MP Claudius “Toontje” Buncamper of United St. Maarten Party (US Party) was the first to take the floor during the question round. He questioned how mandatory quarantine and isolation will be enforced, the financing to enforce these measures, and the consequences for breaking these provisions.
He also questioned the sources that were used to determine St. Maarten’s population and the number needed to reach the 70 per cent vaccination target. Similarly, he asked what threshold will be used to determine if herd immunity is reached, and wanted to know the reasoning behind the change from Pfizer to other vaccine brands.
National Alliance (NA) MP George Pantophlet wanted to know about the difference between the vaccine brands.
The 67-year-old Pantophlet – the second oldest of the current MPs – took an anti-vaccination position during his turn on the floor, even implying that he will not take one because of a personal health regimen of medicinal plants.
“I don’t need a vaccination. If I take care of myself and build my immune system, it is up to me. If others want to take it, it is their perfect right, I will not say do not. But I really hope [the vaccines – Ed.] continue to be not mandatory,” he said.
Fellow NA MP William Marlin, who is the oldest sitting MP, took an opposing position to Pantophlet. “I’m going to take [the vaccine]…I take pills every day, so I think adding [something] more to it will not kill,” said Marlin, adding that there is a lot of concern about the vaccines in the community. He asked about government’s plans if there is a significant number of residents who refuse to be vaccinated.
Like Pantophlet, MP Grisha Heyliger-Marten of United People’s (UP) party spoke about her natural “concoction” to fight COVID-19. “I too, at home, have a personal concoction that I do. We do orange, we do lemon, we do lime, turmeric, ginger, and garlic. We blend it all together and we add a little honey,” said Heyliger-Marten.
Although admitting that she was not a healthcare professional, she said, “I have given [the concoction] to many people who had COVID-19 and it boosted their immune system.”
“Is this something we should continue doing? Is this something we should promote?” Heyliger-Marten asked Panneflek and Lista-de Weever. “I have seen it work…I mean, I have seen it work but you got to tell me, you are the professionals.”
Heyliger-Marten also asked about the temperature checks at the vaccination distribution centres and whether persons found to have COVID-19 will still be vaccinated.
Independent MP Christophe Emmanuel asked what is meant by herd immunity and why it is important. Like other MPs, Emmanuel wanted to know the difference between the vaccine brand and whether a study was done to determine which was best.
Party for Progress (PFP) MP Melissa Gumbs asked about the number of vaccine doses that St. Maarten will receive and how many are needed to achieve government’s 70 per cent vaccination target. She also questioned what will happen to unused doses if registered persons do not show up for their vaccination.
UP MP Omar Ottley asked if there is a system in place to monitor the vaccines’ effectiveness and whether a card or certificate will be issued to the inoculated. He also asked whether persons can still contract COVID-19 after being vaccinated and the consequences of not making COVID-19 part of the Group A diseases under the National Ordinance on Public Health.
MP Sarah Wescot-Williams of United Democrats (UD) asked whether everyone can register now or just those in the first two priority groups. She also questioned how government will determine when to move on to the other priority groups, the types of afflictions that will be classified as underlying conditions, and how the VSA ministry is safeguarding registration information.
NA MP Angelique Romou asked about the plans to help the elderly and shut-in register for vaccines. She also wanted to know if, and how, persons will be monitored between doses.
UP MP Rolando Brison took the floor last, and questioned the country’s current antigen testing. Like some of his colleagues, he also asked about the financing and enforcement of quarantine and isolation measures.
The meeting was adjourned after MPs posed their questions. The session is to resume on Friday, February 19.
Source: The Daily Herald https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/1-606-persons-registered-for-coronavirus-vaccine