Media statement

PS Health – Press Statement 27-04-2021

Statement by Permanent Secretary for Health and Medical Services Dr James Fong.

Bula Vinaka, and good afternoon.

We have received confirmation from the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit (MDU) at the Peter Doherty Institute in Melbourne that recent cases of COVID-19 are of the B1617 variant that was first detected in India. As I mentioned yesterday, our contact tracing investigations meant that we already strongly suspected that this was the variant in question – as case 73, the soldier working in border quarantine only had contact with recent border quarantine cases who had travelled from India. This has informed our containment measures, and we have already adapted them accordingly, but I want the public to have a clear grasp of the stakes here — because the discipline and diligence of ordinary Fijians will make or break our containment of this viral variant.

This newly-confirmed COVID variant is one of several dangerous new variants that have taken root in places like Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and in India –– which is suffering a painful fourth wave the likes of which the world has never seen.

So, we recognise exactly what we’re up against, I want to take a minute to read the media’s account of the B1617 variant’s devastation, for example, in India. As reported by the BBC:

“India is now in the grips of a public health emergency. Social media feeds are full with videos of Covid funerals at crowded cemeteries, wailing relatives of the dead outside hospitals, long queues of ambulances carrying gasping patients, mortuaries overflowing with the dead, and patients, sometimes two to a bed, in corridors and lobbies of hospitals.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot let that nightmare happen in Fiji. We still have time to stop it from happening. But a single misstep could bring about the same “COVID tsunami” that our friends in India, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States are enduring.

Stopping that tsunami depends on two major factors: You, staying at home, and us, tracing and isolating all known cases. I’ll stand before you every day to update you on the latter.

While the results from Melbourne confirmed a frightening new variant, they also confirmed that we are on the right track in our containment efforts: The genetic sequencing revealed that all of the samples sequenced so far have the same virus variant. This confirms our investigations that Case 73 (the border quarantine soldier), case 74 (the hotel worker who attended the Tavakubu funeral), and the woman from Wainitarawau in Cunningham are all within the same cluster. It also reveals that two of the recently announced border quarantine cases from the same border quarantine facility, soldiers recently returned from duties overseas, also have the same variant. This indicates transmission within that border quarantine facility.

Since yesterday’s news conference, we’ve detected six more cases of COVID-19 in Fiji. All six cases were detected among Fijians who are currently in quarantine. Four of the six new cases come from soldiers recently returned from overseas duties, some, who have been fraternising amongst each other during their 14-day quarantine in the border quarantine facility, against the rules we’ve set in place. Their quarantine period had already been extended due to suspected breaches, and unfortunately, these bad apples mean that we have to reset the clock again for all soldiers within that unit –– heroes who have already been separated from their families for far too long.

Each of these new patients tested negative –– multiple times –– before this latest diagnosis. That gives us a great level of confidence that they contracted the virus while in quarantine, very recently, from one of their colleagues. That is unacceptable.

No unnecessary, frivolous contact is worth an extra two weeks in quarantine, but that’s precisely what all of those in the Tanoa Hotel will now need to endure, under much stricter watch, as we reset the clock. Thank God we did so after learning that an earlier case had mingled among his companions –– otherwise, we’d have more cases, and more clusters, as COVID-positive soldiers returned to their families.

Out of an abundance of caution, we will also be recalling all individuals discharged from the Tanoa Hotel from 12th of April 2021 to be screened, swabbed, and tested.

In addition to this cluster of soldiers, two cases were confirmed among family members of the lady from Wainitarawau in Cunningham –– cases that, because of the highly-transmissible nature of this likely variant, we expected. These family members have been admitted in the Navua isolation unit since Wednesday April 21st and tested negative on their first 2 tests in quarantine. As they have now tested positive after 5 days in quarantine, they are not considered a transmission risk to the public.

Our six new COVID-19 patients –– all of whom are safely confined within quarantine or isolation units –– brings Fiji’s total to 109 confirmed cases since our first case was detected on March 19th 2020. We now have 42 confirmed active cases in isolation. I say “confirmed” because, as I’ve stressed before, the number of actual, undetected cases is likely higher –– and that’s precisely why, for your health and the health of your loved ones, you should be wearing a mask at all times. You must download careFIJI and keep it switched on whenever you are out of your home. When you initially download careFIJI, we top-up the data. When it is running, it uses minimal battery and does not chew your data. If you are one of the more than 600,000 Fijians with a smartphone, there is no excuse not to have it downloaded. The family from Makoi did not have the app installed or running — and that has made contact tracing far more complex than it ought to be. Lives are now at-risk as a result.

I also want to address some comments about the contact tracing stemming from the husband and wife living in Makoi.

When the wife first tested positive, and we announced her as a case on Sunday April 25th, we initially feared a case of community transmission. We knew at the time that her husband was a soldier that worked in a border quarantine facility, but we were missing some critical information.

Firstly, we did not yet have information on when he had last returned home. And we needed to have him tested. He was tested later on Sunday with his results available in the early hours of Monday morning. With his positive test result we could make that link back to a border quarantine facility. And later on Monday morning we also confirmed that he had close contact with case 73 (the first soldier who tested positive in the border quarantine facility) after testing negative on April 10th and before returning home on April 12th. We knew then that he and his wife were connected to the same chain of transmission extending from the initial soldier working in the border quarantine facility. Once we confirmed this link, we announced it yesterday, Monday April 26th.

That’s the timeline — I hope that is clear for everyone. We will continue to be transparent about what we know, when we know it. However, we cannot release information that does not have a sound evidence base and is not verified — even if that may alleviate some public anxiety. Instead, we communicate medically-verifiable information. I know the Fijian people expect nothing less.

I would also like to say that the effectiveness of our contact tracing depends upon what we are told by positive cases during our interviews with them, and the information that we get from the public when we make an appeal. If someone forgets that they had contact with a person – it will be very difficult for us to find them. Which is why, again, we ask everyone to download the careFIJI app – it will help us find contacts when a patient is not able to tell us about all their contacts.

We continue to trace, isolate, and test those who have been in contact with our current patients –– a push that depends heavily on self-identification. While most of Fiji is safely at home, my teams are also taking full advantage of this containment window. More than 93,000 Fijians in Cunningham, Lautoka, Nadi, Wainivula, Caubati, Tacirua, and Makoi have been checked for COVID-like symptoms and travel histories that may place them in the path of Fijian living with COVID-19. We have more than 120,000 Fijians left to screen in these areas, and we need as many Fijians at home as possible to do that job well.

Our contact tracing is designed to flush out cases before they become clusters. This strategy has served us well before — but it is not infallible. There are gaps — particularly when it comes to identifying passengers on public transportation — any one of those gaps could become the source of an outbreak. Again, careFIJI app can close those gaps, but only if you have it installed and you keep it on.

House-to-house screening, as well, may reveal some of these outbreaks-in-waiting — but to screen thoroughly, we must take this effort on as a society. There are more than 40 screening clinics open throughout Fiji, every Fijian should know which clinic is closest to them. And if you feel unwell, go get screened. If you know someone who is unwell, take them to be screened. Or stay home and call 158 so our teams can check on you. The full list of screening clinics is on the Fijian Government Facebook page. If we follow this advice, I promise you, one or more of these clinics will save lives.

My team is fielding a number of requests from businesses and organisations seeking exemptions from our containment measures. We know how tough of a time this is for many businesses. But we have been clear — and we will continue to be clear — that we at the Ministry are in the business of stomping out this virus and saving lives.

Our restrictions are designed for that purpose. Not every policy will make everybody happy. But the spirit behind them is perfectly clear: We have to keep Fiji safe. We have to limit movement. We have to stop every unnecessary person-to-person interaction possible.

My message to every Fijian is this: Now is not the time to go looking for loopholes. If we don’t win this fight over the next two weeks and this outbreak gets out of control — the prospects for jobs, micro, small and medium enterprises, entire industries, and our economy as a whole could fall into much more dire straits.

I have explained at great length how this virus travels. It can travel through the air and through tiny droplets that pass from person-to-person within a close distance –– droplets that, if left unmasked and non-distant –– are proven killers.

Just because our officials may not be looking, does not mean the virus cannot travel to you. Protecting yourself and your family means denying this virus any opportunity to spread. Any person-to-person contact outside of your household could get you infected.

Don’t take the chance. Most importantly, you should stay at home –– it’s the easiest, and most foolproof, way you can slow the spread. Stay home. Save the country from a deadly wave of infection. If you see a breach of our measures happening, I’m asking you to take it personally — because it could very well be you or someone in your family who suffers from the irresponsibility of others. Call the Police or call number 158 and report it. It is your duty as a Fijian to do so.