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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, April 24, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsThree Years On, COVID Still Ominous

Three Years On, COVID Still Ominous

(Graphic by Source staff)

Just exactly when the COVID-19 virus crept into the world and changed our lives forever may never be certain. A number of scientific studies now suggest it may have been months before it was first spotted in China and called out by the World Health Organization in late December 2019.

News reports and concern increased steadily in January and February of 2020 as the world tracked the spread of the disease associated with the virus. While scientists scrambled to decode its genetic make-up and medical experts grappled with an expanding list of symptoms, it became evident the threat would not be contained geographically.

In a recent interview with the Source, the Virgin Islands Territorial Epidemiologist Esther Ellis said, “As an epidemiologist, I was concerned right away. As soon as I heard about it, I said, ‘We have to get ready for this.”

Ellis said the V.I. Health Department began testing suspected cases in January 2020.  For the first couple of months, until the V.I. had its own lab testing, samples had to be sent off-island for analysis. It took about a week to get results.  Eventually, that time was cut to between 24 and 48 hours.

On March 13, 2020, Health officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the territory.

For many, that date may serve as the “anniversary” of the disease in the Virgin Islands. Certainly, it marks the beginning of life dominated by the virus.

Immediate reactions and repercussions

The same day the first death was confirmed, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. issued an Emergency Declaration, complete with a price freeze on masks, sanitizers and other COVID-related protective products. He canceled St. Croix’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which was scheduled for the next day, and warned that “more than likely” the cancellation of St. Thomas Carnival in April would be next (It was).

Gov. Albert Bryan declares a State of Emergency in the Virgin Islands on March 13, 2020, the same day the territory confirms its first death attributed to Covid-19. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)

He also said schools would probably have to close and virtual instruction would replace in-person classes. The prediction proved more true than he might first have believed. Initially closed “temporarily,” public schools didn’t reopen that school year and only managed a limited in-person/virtual hybrid of instruction the next school year.

“We urge citizens to remain calm as we go through this coronavirus pandemic,” Bryan said at his March 13, 2020, press conference. “Your government is doing everything possible to make sure that citizens are safe.”

In the following days and weeks, the COVID drumbeat got faster and louder.

  • Chief Justice Rhys Hodge issued an administrative order canceling civil and criminal jury trials, except those currently in progress, and instituted myriad health protections.
  • The Water and Power Authority began limiting services for walk-in customers and urged people to use phone or online services instead.
  • The USVI Soccer Association canceled or suspended events and competitions temporarily.
  • The Oriental Bank urged customers to bank online.
  • Charities serving meals to the hungry replaced buffet-style meals with prepacked carry-out meals and directed clients to stay six feet apart from one another.
  • The Moravian Church Virgin Islands Conference suspended activities “until further notice.”
The Danish Lutheran Church on St. Croix was one of many shuttered against Covid-19, even on Easter Sunday, in 2020. (Source photo by Linda Morland)
  • Vitran temporarily suspended most public bus service, providing only ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) paratransit for medical services.
  • Funeral homes began limiting attendance at funerals to family members of the deceased.
  • Retailers reported sales were down.
  • Bryan ordered a 30-day moratorium on hotel bookings and urged residents to stay home as much as possible.
  • At an emergency session, sitting socially distanced, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing the governor to borrow from public funds to offset cash flow problems and ensure government payroll. It also asked Congress to include the territory in any stimulus funding meant to alleviate COVID-related losses.
Maintaining social distance, senators meet in an emergency session March 27, 2020, to pass Covid-related legislation. (Photo from Legislature’s video stream)
  • Labor Commissioner Gary Molloy reported more than 1,000 residents had applied for unemployment; that number would grow to 17,000 before the end of the year.  Prior to the pandemic, the typical number had been about 300 annually.
  • With the increasing demand for electronic connections as the world turned virtual, there came an increase in customer inquiries, so Broadband VI launched a free mobile app allowing customers to troubleshoot their accounts from their mobile phones.

Falling Finances

The economy was faltering nationally, globally, and at home. And the territory’s mainstay, travel and tourism, was especially hard-hit.

COVID hit VI businesses hard; on April 12, 2020, not even a chicken was allowed in at the King Christian Hotel in Christiansted. (Source photo by Linda Morland)

By the end of March 2020, all four carriers that regularly served the Virgin Islands (American, Spirit, United and Silver/Seaborne Airlines) had slashed their flights.

And the cruise industry was in serious danger of sinking. Some Caribbean destinations had already turned away cruise ships over COVID concerns. Jamaica and the Cayman Islands refused entrance to the Merviglia because a crew member had symptoms. The Dominican Republic waived away Fred Olsen Cruises for a similar reason. The British Virgin Islands decided not to allow the Costa Favolosa to dock because it carried passengers from Italy, where the virus was raging. And the U.S. Coast Guard refused to allow the Grandeur of the Seas to dock in St. Thomas after it was turned away from St. Maarten because it had a crew member who had been in a COVID hot spot (Japan) within the last 14 days.

Then, on March 14, 2020, the CDC issued a No-Sail order applying to any cruise ship under U.S. jurisdiction carrying more than 250 people (including passengers and crew) and planning one or more overnight stays. Initially, it was for 30 days; then, it was extended for another 100. Eventually, the order stretched out more than a year. It was July of 2021 before the territory saw the return of the first ship and early 2022 before cruise passengers started arriving in anything like pre-pandemic numbers.

As the weeks have worn into months and the months into years, uncertainty has plagued attempts to cope.

Rollercoaster Ride

Time and again, COVID has seemed to wane, only to surge again. After essentially closing its ports to visitors for two months, the territory reopened June 1, 2020. A month later, beaches were closed early to discourage parties; soon after, bars and restaurants and entertainment centers were ordered closed.

The next year, in the spring of 2021, things were looking good. The governor was urging the expedited return of cruise ships. In June, the Legislature resumed in-person meetings. The government was using federal stimulus money to fund a vaccine lottery, incentivizing people to get vaccinated.

Then first the Alpha and then the Delta COVID variants emerged in the Virgin Islands. On July 23, Bryan went on TV to warn of a surge. And on Aug. 3, the CDC designated the territory a “very high” risk area for COVID infection and told travelers to avoid it.

Things calmed down in the fall for a little while. But by Dec. 27, 2021, it was another story. Bryan told the public the highly contagious Omicron variant was circulating and that, in the previous week, the number of active COVID cases jumped from 72 to 544. Some restrictions were reinstated.

Statistically, the beginning of 2022 looks to be the worst for the Virgin Islands to date, according to figures recently provided by Ellis. The Health Department recorded 2,314 new cases in the week of Jan. 5, 2022, making that the newest cases in a single week. It also was the week with the highest number of active cases, a case being considered “active” for 10 days: 3,548.

As officials periodically remind the public, government figures are believed to be an undercount since not everyone who gets COVID gets tested.

A few weeks into 2022, things began to settle down again.

At the end of February 2022, Bryan lifted the mask requirement for most outdoor spaces and scaled back other restrictions. By March, the hours for testing and for vaccinations were reduced.  There was a St. Patrick’s Day Parade – the first in two years. School was scheduled to open fully in-person by March 14. At Easter, Crucians celebrated with beach camping. On St. Thomas, Carnival events were limited, but they included a live Food Fair open to all.

For the first time in two years, in April 2022, Carnival revelers were allowed on the streets for Food Fair where Gera Orales checked out the offerings at Toya’s Catering. (Source photo by Judi Shimel)

Although people were still testing positive – including Bryan, Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach, and Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory – and there were still some serious and some fatal results, most cases seemed to be relatively mild.

Around the world and in the territory, talk had turned to the difference between a “pandemic” and a disease that is “endemic.” COVID, some experts said, might always be with us. It was a question of co-existence.

On June 16, Bryan said the “pandemic” phase of COVID-19 was over, adding, “we have moved solidly into the endemic phase of COVID-19.” On June 30, he declared the State of Emergency over.

But one month later, on July 18, 2022, Health officials said cases were rising again and two more resistant virus strains, BA.4 and BA.5, were circulating in the territory.

By October of 2022, officials said there was less COVID. Three weeks later, Government House reported that cases were rising.

What Now?

This year opened with an unusually high positivity rate: nearly 19 percent. Since January 2023, cases have been mostly on the decline. But Health officials warn against complacency.

“COVID is still highly contagious,” Ellis said.

“It’s really hard to measure prevention,” she said, but studying the curves of the disease, it seems evident that “the shelter-at-home (directive) was really effective.” She blamed surges on a combination of times when people failed to social distance and periods when a new variant reached the territory.

The most important goal, she said, is to keep serious cases low, and the Virgin Islands has done well at that. For the past six months, its COVID-related death rate has been at or near the third lowest among all the states and territories in the nation.

“I’m really proud of that,” she said.

There has not been a COVID-related death in the territory since Feb. 13 of this year. The total currently stands at 130.

Ellis also feels better about the territory’s vaccination rate. At one point, it appeared so low that federal officials said the V.I. ranked 55 out of 60 states and territories for per capita immunization. But that, she said, was based on an inaccurate population count. The Virgin Islands hadn’t received its 2020 Census count, and so it was using the 2010 count to figure its per capita rate.

The Census Bureau says the V.I. population dropped about 18 percent, from 106,405 in 2010, to 87,146 in 2020. Once the territory’s 2020 figures were available (several months after the states), Health recalculated its per capita rate. Instead of being 55 out of 60, it now ranked 39th of 60.

That doesn’t mean the government has slacked its efforts to get people vaccinated. Virtually every communication from the Health Department reiterates the vaccine message.

“Definitely keep up to date on your vaccinations,” Ellis said. Besides that, take care of your health and remember to wash your hands frequently.

If or when you meet up with the virus, you want to start the encounter at your maximum strength.

Testing also remains important. While its role in tracing community spread may have lessened, it’s now vital for treatment. Some anti-viral drugs have been shown to be effective in reducing the severity of the disease, but typically they must be taken within a few days of the first sign of symptoms. At least one of those drugs, Paxlovid, is “readily available” in the territory, Ellis said.

Health’s free testing is currently paused while numbers are low and federal financial support has run out, but the department is hoping for local funding to restart it. Meanwhile, vaccination is still free.

To see a detailed timeline of COVID-related events, go to the COVID-19 V.I. Timeline.

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