The U.S. Virgin Islands has received a $7.8 million grant from the U.S. Interior Department through the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act approved last week by Congress. It was one of three financial announcements made Monday by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. during his update on the territory’s response to the novel coronavirus.
The governor and other officials also discussed new testing protocols to speed results in suspected COVID-19 cases, and on responses to last week’s spate of violence in the Hospital Ground area.
Because of the global health emergency, the application process for the CARES Act funding has been streamlined to ensure the quick disbursement of the funds, and the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs is not requiring a detailed budget or timeline with the application, according to the governor.
Those items will be required after funding is awarded and before any drawdowns of the money are processed. According to Bryan, a simplified application for the federal emergency funding was submitted Monday.
Bryan said the grants could help with any projects put through FEMA, for which the government covers a 25 percent match. This includes the repurposing of the regional training institute at the V.I. National Guard armory on St. Croix, which the governor said will soon accommodate 46 acute-care beds for COVID-19 patients as the territory begins to prepare for a potential surge. The mission assignment for the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers to begin the project was approved over the weekend, he said, adding that the total cost would be $8 million, with the territory responsible for a $2 million match.
The Anderson Steward Family Foundation has donated $1 million to the U.S. Virgin Islands to help the territory’s hospitals, Bryan announced. And the Haugland Energy Group donated $50,000 to both local hospitals.
“This is a significant donation because it allows us to purchase testing kits, respirators and PPEs,” the governor said, adding that other funds will go toward providing stress, counseling and mental health services to residents dealing “with the fallout of the impact” of coronavirus in the territory.
U.S. Virgin Islands hospitals have implemented new testing protocols which will allow for 24-hour results in priority COVID-19 cases, Bryan and public health officials said Monday.
According to Bryan, the new protocols allows for results within 24 hours and reduce the use of PPE’s, along with helping to quickly identify people affected by and infected with the virus.
In a public announcement Monday, the governor urged anyone feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms not to go the hospital, but to call the lab instead.
“We are very well prepared,” said Dr. Brent Ellis, who oversees the lab. Speaking during the news session Monday, Ellis said the public health lab is equipped with multiple instruments and is capable of handing “surge” testing.
“The availability of supplies is the biggest challenge and that will continue in the coming weeks as manufacturers work on their production capacities and the federal government determines how to allocate those tests as they become available,” he said.
Until then, the territory has been given 120 tests that can provide positive results in three minutes and negative results within 15. Both hospitals have been given those kits, and Ellis said Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix began rapid testing on Saturday, while Schneider Regional on St. Thomas will be up and running by Friday.
Priority testing is given to those who are hospitalized or to medical providers who may be symptomatic. Otherwise, samples can be taken at the lab and sent off to the Centers for Disease Control for processing within three to four days.
COVID-19, by the Numbers
According to the latest numbers, 375 USVI residents have been tested for the virus. Of that amount, 332 were negative, 51 positive (14 on St. Croix, 35 on St. Thomas and two on St. John) and two are pending.
Two patients are hospitalized on St. Thomas – one is in stable condition, while the other is on a ventilator – and one death has been recorded.
However, Bryan also said 43 individuals have recovered, leaving seven active cases, which are being tracked. While public health officials have cautioned those numbers could double if public health “social-distancing” measures are not followed, Bryan said the territory is currently tracking below the curve and last week experienced two days without any positive cases confirmed.
“We stand poised to rebound with the rest of the nation, but that success relies on your willingness to continue being cooperative,” he said to the community. “Do not let your guard down now. Remain vigilant, stay safe and sanitize.”
Responding to Violence
Bryan and V.I. Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor took a hardline approach to addressing the spate of gun violence that claimed the lives of three residents on St. Thomas over the past week. Within three days, five individuals were shot in the Hospital Ground area, two of whom are recovering from injuries.
“In a time like this, it is really frustrating to have to stop what we are doing to save lives on the street,” Bryan said. “Instead of protecting people from the virus, we are saving them from bullets.”
In response, VIPD combed the area and set up surveillance, resulting in the confiscation of four firearms on April 8, including two AK-47’s, an assault rifle that is currently illegal under V.I. law. Two more guns were seized the same day from within a house in the same community, and another on Saturday as federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents came out in support.
Velinor said that whoever purchases or is found in possession of guns will be arrested, and he appealed to anyone in the community with information on the recent homicides to contact the anonymous tip service, Crime Stoppers USVI, at 1-800-222-8477, or the V.I. Police Department at 911.
Road blocks have been set up along with increased patrols in Hospital Ground and Velinor said residents should expect to be approached by police when traveling through the area. He also said the department will continue working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, ATF and any other organization or agency able to offer manpower as VIPD clamps down.
“In a matter of less than 72 hours, three people were killed,” Velinor said. “That is traumatizing, and we are taking this very seriously.”