As the USVI struggles to get its vaccination rate above 42 percent, even offering $250 to those who get their second shot under a new initiative announced Monday, British Virgin Islanders are sending their children to the territory to get immunized with vaccines not available in the BVI.
The first voyage of the “British Virgin Islands-United States Virgin Islands Vaccination Bubble Initiative” set sail to St. John on Aug. 3 with 59 passengers, 33 of whom were children, according to the BVI government.
The initiative was announced in July as the British Virgin Islands was battling an alarming rise in active cases that at one point topped 1,600.
The surge has since been brought under control through a combination of curfews, business shutdowns and vaccination drives, and as of Aug. 5, there were 151 active cases and seven people hospitalized, according to the most recent report by BVI Minister for Health and Social Development Carvin Malone. There have been 37 deaths, all but one of them since July 8.
The BVI has only the AstraZeneca vaccine, which it receives from the U.K. but which has not been approved for use in children under 18. The bubble initiative also is open to those over 18 who wish to receive an alternative vaccine, but Malone said at a press conference in July that priority will be given to children.
As the first cohort to take part in the program set sail on Aug. 3, Premier Andrew Fahie thanked Malone, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and the entire health team that made the initiative possible.
“As a government, we remain committed to ensuring that persons have access to additional brands of vaccines through the vaccine bubble initiative. We also wanted to start with the children because the more children we have vaccinated, the better it is for us to strategically work towards reopening schools,” Fahie said in a press release.
“We want to make sure that everything is done to get the population immunized,” said Malone. “Vaccination saves lives, and we want to make sure that persons are protected from this deadly disease. COVID-19 has taken the lives of too many of our people, and our hearts and prayers goes out to all those who have suffered the loss of loved ones,” he said.
As of Aug. 5, 12,187 people are fully vaccinated, and 4,403 are partially vaccinated in the British Virgin Islands for a vaccination rate of 55 percent, according to Malone.
Parents of children who have received vaccines through the bubble initiative spoke of its importance and expressed their gratitude for the program.
“I think it was a very good idea for them to have done this. Both me and my wife are vaccinated, and we felt uncomfortable that our son was not vaccinated so when we heard about this initiative we were quite excited. COVID-19 is very dangerous, people are dying, and I cannot bear the thought of something like that happening to my family,” one parent said in the press release.
Another parent commented, “It is great that we are able to get our children that are 12 years and older vaccinated. It is a great initiative, and it is very well organized.”
A concerned single parent said, “I am thankful for this opportunity that the children can get vaccinated. My reason for taking them, first of all, my son has asthma, and anyone would know that COVID-19 is not going to play with people with underlying conditions as well as my concern for them getting back into school.” He added, “I think that it is a very good initiative that the government has put in place for us, they waved all the fees and it is a nice, quick and easy process.”
The USVI is offering the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines under the program. Participants must complete the registration form available on the government’s website and email it along with the supporting documentation to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 284-852-7525 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Participants travel by ferry from the West End of Tortola, arriving either on St. John or St. Thomas, are escorted to the vaccination site, and returned to the ferry to go back to the BVI, Malone has said previously.
Travel protocols between the two territories will remain in place for the program, said Malone. This includes submitting a negative COVID-19 test to the V.I. Health Department’s travel portal within 48 hours of departure, instead of the usual 5 days, under new rules for arrivals from the BVI that Bryan announced on July 15.