Statement by Permanent Secretary for Health and Medical Services, Dr James Fong.
I know we don’t start these announcements at the same time every day. I wish we could. But the nature of 24/7 testing means new developments can come about at a moment’s notice. When that happens, rather than rush to meet an announcement deadline, we obtain all of the information, tailor our strategy, and announce those changes clearly to the public.
We’ve considered setting a cut-off time for receiving new information and scheduling press conferences at a set time every day. But COVID does not have a cut-off time. If that’s how we tried to manage things, we could end up confirming a new case late in the afternoon, but not announce it at that day’s press conference.
Fiji is a small place. We know from experience that even the slightest possibility of a new case can spark rumours and misinformation quite quickly. To stay ahead of the coconut wireless –– or what I call the “media coconut wireless” –– we try very hard to keep you informed of the latest developments as soon as we can with verified information. We will continue to review this strategy. In the meantime, we appreciate you taking the time to tune in and be with us –– even if it may be at different hours of the afternoon.
Today, we have no new cases of COVID-19 to report. But we have some important updates to share about our existing cases.
Following confirmation that two doctors at the Lautoka Hospital tested positive for COVID-19, we launched an immediate and intensive contact tracing exercise. These two doctors worked closely together, so we’re quite sure one passed the virus to the other. But individually, they both came into contact with many others. So far, 98 have been identified.
Many of these contacts — unsurprisingly –– are their colleagues who work at Lautoka Hospital, including doctors and nurses. As per protocol, these Fijians must be entered into two weeks of quarantine. This has seriously affected our staffing capacity, particularly for medical and surgical services. We have re-deployed staff from other facilities to cover these gaps, but needless to say, it will be a very demanding two weeks of shifts for the staff at the Lautoka Hospital. Still, we are confident we can manage.
Some of the other contacts are patients. Given that they were seeking treatment for other ailments, we have identified these individuals as particularly high-risk. All have been identified, swabbed, and entered into quarantine.
Neither doctor has been directly linked to other existing cases of COVID-19. But our investigation is still in its early phase, and we are not ruling anything out. As a result, we are also testing all the staff of the COVID-19 isolation ward.
I mentioned yesterday that both doctors have careFIJI installed and kept it running. Thank God they did. So far, we have identified 20 close contacts through the app. We found these contacts very quickly. We did not need to publish lists of times and locations online to do so. Instead, the app provided that information in a matter of minutes after the doctors uploaded their careFIJI information.
Some of these contacts may never have been identified through traditional contact tracing investigations –– which, as I’ve mentioned, relies mainly on the patient’s memory. Ask any lawyer, police officer or judge and they’ll tell you: Memory is an imperfect tool. People forget things all of the time. But careFIJI does not forget. As long as everyone has the app installed and keeps their bluetooth turned on, it tells us exactly who has been near someone living with COVID-19. By providing us with that information quickly, the app does more than save time, energy and resources for my teams –– it saves Fijian lives.
During past conferences, I’ve taken plenty of queries from the media about careFIJI. I think it is fair to say that there was an air of skepticism around some of your questions. I understand that skepticism is something of a tradecraft for some reporters. That’s all well and good. But I hope that the proven success of this app finds its way into your reporting. I hope you will help us encourage more downloads of the app and ensure that the phone’s Bluetooth is turned on to make our contact tracing as effective and efficient as possible –– and I hope you join us in crediting the digitalFIJI team for this app’s development.
My teams are already extremely experienced contact tracers. They are a model to other nations. The widespread adoption of careFIJI simply takes them to another level of their effectiveness and efficiency.
The thoroughness of our contact tracing means that the Ministry has never needed to publish the names of any of our patients. Sometimes, patients choose to share their COVID-positive status –– but doing so is just that, a personal choice. So please stop asking us about the personal details of any patients. We will never give them. Physician-patient privilege is sacred and we will not violate it –– that is my answer today, and it will be my answer tomorrow and every day after.
I raise this issue because yesterday the media insisted on asking about the personal details of some recently-discharged patients. Not long after, the identities of our two doctors who tested positive for COVID-19 were leaked on social media. Their personal choice to reveal their status was taken from them, and it has impacted them both quite badly. Those who are sharing their identities should stop. I know that preventing information about a person from being shared on social media is akin to trying to stop the tides with a broom. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. I want to appeal to people to think twice before they share this sort of private information. It reflects poorly on your values and respect for your fellow Fijians. The question you should ask yourself is: Would you like your personal information shared if you or one of your loved ones contracted the coronavirus? The sharing of private and confidential information does real damage to COVID-19 patients who truly do not need any more stress in their lives. We can do better, Fiji, and we should.
Lautoka has existed as a containment area now for 16 days and today is day 9 after the recent reset. I know life in Lautoka is nowhere near normal. These newest cases do mean the containment area may last for some time longer. So far, our contact tracing stemming from these cases is progressing well, and we will make an epidemiological assessment of the cases to determine whether the containment area protocols should continue, and if so for how long. But we cannot make that determination at this stage. I will let you know as soon as we can.
I want to say a word about our isolation facilities.
Every day our doctors, nurses, and healthcare officials leave their homes and head to work knowing we face risks to our own health and wellbeing. Not only from COVID but from any one of the many infections and diseases that we treat in the course of caring for patients. So it is no surprise that –– throughout the pandemic –– healthcare staff serving on the frontlines have faced the greatest risks of exposure to the coronavirus. In Fiji and in clinics, surgery theatres, and ICUs worldwide, healthcare workers work in close proximity with COVID-positive patients. We wear the proper PPE, but the risk of infection is always present. If we do happen to contract COVID, we don’t play by a different set of rules. We go into the same isolation wards as everyone else, the same wards that our colleagues are responsible for managing. So when it comes to these facilities, please trust we care deeply about seeing them run well. We know it could be us, someone we love, or any of our fellow citizens –– all of whom we are sworn to care for –– who are in those facilities. And given that we are in the business of saving lives, please trust that these facilities are equipped to offer the best possible care to those who may develop a severe case of the virus. And if you do have COVID –– I want to emphasize again: There is no safer place for you to be than in our isolation facilities.
When I can, I like to end these announcements with some positive news. First, we’ll be adding four new GeneXpert testing machines to our capacity, adding to the additional machine donated by Oceania Hospitals, that will boost our testing capacity by about 480 tests per day. We have been shattering our daily testing records nearly every day. With these machines at our disposal, we expect that streak to continue.
I’m also happy to report that –– as of today –– our teams have administered all 4,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses allocated for Suva. That deployment went off without a hitch as high-risk individuals, including the elderly, more frontline healthcare workers, bankers, and taxi, minibus and bus drivers came forward to be protected. I’ll remind everyone, getting one dose does not mean you are vaccinated –– it takes two on a 10 to 12-week timeline. No one in Fiji is fully vaccinated. All of us must practice strict adherence to our health protection measures until such time that we achieve the full immunity of our eligible population.
We expect to roll out the remaining 20,000 doses through the West by the end of this week. The day we’re able to roll these vaccines out everywhere in Fiji into the arms of every eligible Fijian is the day that lockdowns –– like the ones we just endured here in Suva –– become all but unnecessary. More doses are on the way. Please register online, come forward when you have the chance, and help us take Fiji into the post-pandemic future that is already being embraced around the world.