The Press Box took a team approach on Thursday as the virtual town hall featured some of the many government officials who have worked to keep the territory functioning and safe amid the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.
Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Daryl Jaschen and V.I. National Guard Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Kodjo Knox-Limbacker joined moderator and former Sen. Neville James at Government House on St. Croix to discuss the U.S. Virgin Islands’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
They were joined via Zoom by fellow members of the territory’s COVID-19 task force, including VIPD Commissioner Trevor Velinor, Territorial Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis, Luis Hospital acting CEO Dyma Williams, Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte, Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez, Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien and Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Richard Evangelista.
The team members have met every morning at 8 a.m., six days a week, since March, but conversations about how to handle the pandemic began in January, said Encarnacion. Friday, March 13, marked the territory’s first COVID-19 infection, and also the first of many press conferences, held multiple times a week at first and now once a week as coronavirus cases have been brought further under control and the infection curve has flattened.
March 13 also marked the COVID-19 emergency declaration by President Donald Trump as well as by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., which activated the Emergency Operations Center with VITEMA in command. Soon after, residents began receiving daily virus updates via instant messaging and emails, much as they would in the event of a hurricane or earthquake.
“This team here gelled quickly,” said Knox-Limbacker, who said his main focus at the time was how to fill any gaps before the hospitals had the capacity to treat a possible surge in infections. Within 72 hours he had secured federal funding that enabled the National Guard to mobilize – far before many states on the mainland.
The response “has been a herculean effort that no one really anticipated,” said Ellis. However, setting up a response was made easier by past experiences with contact tracing for outbreaks such as chikungunya and Zika, as well as tuberculosis, which also is a highly contagious and airborne disease, said Ellis.
As the territory has moved through various stages of restrictions as the virus waned and then surged, and then waned again, the team members said the territory’s experience dealing with natural disasters – particularly the twin Category 5 hurricanes of September 2017 – put them in good stead to shape the response.
“COVID shook us up a little bit because it was unknown,” said Jaschen, but the command structure and response were the same as for a hurricane or earthquake, he said.
Williams-Octalien said that because the territory is still in recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria, protocols and expertise were already in place to begin processing millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We were able to pivot very quickly,” said Williams-Octalien. “It’s a blessing in disguise in terms of how ready we were.”
Meanwhile, Boschulte said the Tourism Department worked with Health after the second shutdown in August to prepare for an eventual reopening to leisure travel in mid-September, designing a portal where all travelers to the U.S. Virgin Islands – residents and visitors alike – must upload their contact information and negative COVID-19 test results.
Boschulte said there has been 80 percent compliance with the portal, and an app has been developed that will soon work in tandem with it to better trace visitors. He said he continues to work with airlines and hotels to ensure that guests understand local expectations about masks and social distancing.
Evangelista’s team also plays a role in assessing complaints and citations filed by peace officers who are tasked with investigating bars, eateries and other businesses that fail to comply with the mandates of the governor’s emergency orders.
“We cannot get complacent,” said Boschulte.
Velinor agreed. “It’s a challenge, it’s a task, but for us, it works better because we have a very cooperative team,” said the police commissioner, who also was quick to praise the public. “I think as a community we’ve been going in the right direction,” he said, whether at the beaches, when out for dinner or at other gathering places.
The response by the public has given Boschulte confidence that yes, the USVI is ready to open its doors. “We are ready for tourism,” he said, noting how he has seen a change in habits in the territory as everybody complies with the mandatory mask and social distancing mandates.
“We all have to be vested in making sure we keep our curve flat,” said Boschulte. Nobody wants to shut down again, he said, “but if we have to, we will.”
Encarnacion credited the work of the behavioral health team that has gone out in the community to educate the public about COVID-19 and the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and proper hand sanitizing.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you for wearing your mask,” James said to the virtual viewers. “It’s as plain and simple as that.”