Family Gathering of 35 Bumps Up COVID Numbers for USVI

V.I. Health Department Medical Director Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar urges residents not to engage in debate opposing the efficacy of vaccines as it could cause further spread of the virus. (Screen capture)

A holiday family gathering of 35 that exceeded pandemic guidelines laid down by the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Centers for Disease Control contributed to an uptick in the territory’s positive COVID-19 count, which now includes 33 active cases on St. Croix, 45 on St. Thomas and 31 on St. John for a total 109 active cases, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said on Monday.

The territory’s COVID-positive count is now a little more than 7 percent of the test results, Bryan said in his weekly news update.

“As a result, the Department of Health is having to deal with dozens of coronavirus cases, where 12 people infected have gone out and created more infections,” Bryan said. “I know it’s been a long time since we have been dealing with COVID, and we’re exhausted, but we can’t afford to be complacent just because nine months have gone by. I tell people all the time, our people of the Virgin Islands have done a tremendous job fighting the virus. The problem is all it takes is one person to make a complete disaster of this beautiful territory we have.”

With the winter holidays now approaching, Bryan urged residents to rethink any travel plans or on-island gatherings and opt to keep the community safe by limiting any possible exposure.

“Many of the people who have the virus are asymptomatic or have very few signs and there are very few hospitalized, so you can’t see or sense who is infected,” he said. “The best of friends, the closest of family are infecting one another because they are not following the guidelines we put out to protect you and your loved ones.”

With more travelers expected in the coming weeks, Bryan said the government is mandating 100 percent testing at the airports, with visitors coming in without a COVID test required to pay for one or face a fine and 14-day quarantine. The cost of the fine, he added, is “significantly” more than the test itself.

As the government works out the availability of tests needed to meet the mandate, along with software changes to its travel app, Bryan said his team will roll out more initiatives, like the recently announced partnership with American Airlines that would allow for preboarding testing.

“We shouldn’t have a positivity rate of more than 5 percent and going into holiday season for tourists, this isn’t where we want to be at this point,” he said. “This includes 31 cases on St. John, which means we had had more people testing positive within the last week than in the last nine months on St. John, and it’s the island where we have the least resources to attack and help with the virus, so we’re looking at ramping up resources there.”

According to the numbers, there were also 91 pending tests as of Monday afternoon.

With other outbreaks, such as a recent one on St. Croix, quarantining proved to be critical and the governor encouraged residents who may be feeling sick not to wait for a test.

“Just quarantine yourself,” he said. “If you’re sick, assume you have it until you get a negative test. I know you don’t want a lockdown either, especially when we are so close to getting a vaccine distributed.”

According to DOH Medical Director Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar, the territory stands ready to receive an approved COVID-19 vaccine at the same time as the states, and local officials have said that safe distribution and storage have been coordinated. In the meantime, Hunte-Caesar encouraged residents not to engage in public debate about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, particularly when they have been scientifically proven to save lives.

“Without the proper knowledge surrounding vaccine development process, this behavior is irresponsible and will further contribute to the rise in death and long-term complications of COVID-19 and the disproportionate rates among people of ethnic communities,” she said.

Hunte-Caesar also emphasized that any vaccine distributed locally will not be experimental, but rather one that has been federally approved and tested.

“There will be no ‘guinea pig trials’ in the Virgin Islands,” she said. “The experiments are done, and we were not participants in the clinical trials.”

Residents should stick “to the facts” when deciding whether or not they will take the vaccine, she said.

“The decision to become vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus should be made after listening to the facts,” Hunte-Caesar said. “Have a discussion with your health care provider to determine if there are any medical contraindications for vaccinations. Educate yourself on the facts and not what is harmfully perpetuated on social media.”