Media statement

PS Health – Press Statement 03-05-2021

Last Updated on 5 months by Publishing Team

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

Bula Vinaka.
After another 1736 COVID-19 tests, we have confirmed two new cases of COVID-19. They are both doctors who work at the Lautoka hospital.

The first, a 25-year-old female doctor, presented at a screening clinic today with COVID-like symptoms. A few hours ago, she tested positive for the virus. The second, a 30-year-old male doctor, was tested as part of contact tracing for the first doctor.

Both doctors have been entered into isolation and their close household contacts have been quarantined. We are early into our investigation, but at this stage, they do not appear to have any links to existing cases or events of interest, such as the Tavakubu funeral. Also, while they did work in the hospital, they did not work in the isolation ward where they would have had interaction with COVID-positive patients. So while we are very early into this investigation, we must treat these cases as instances of community transmission until it is proven otherwise.

All contacts within the hospital will be screened, tested, and isolated as appropriate. As you can imagine, this is a massive and complex undertaking for the Lautoka hospital team, and we are providing the support they need. This includes sending in medical teams from other medical facilities to replace staff who have been identified as close contacts of these cases and stood down to be isolated.

We have one advantage — both doctors installed the careFIJI app and had it running. So while our contact tracing teams are conducting their work on the ground, a digital net is being cast far and wide for Fijians who may have had contact with these two doctors. careFIJI has identified one contact already, and Lautoka is safer for it. While these two doctors responsibly had the app running, we know the effectiveness of the app’s contact tracing function depends on how many other people also had it running on their phones. So, if you do not yet have the app installed — do it right now, and make sure it is running every time you leave the house. It will not use data, it will not chew battery — it will save lives.

We also know that, as frontline healthcare workers, they had both received the first dose of the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine. However, as we have explained before, you need two doses of this vaccine, given 10-12 weeks apart, to be considered fully vaccinated and develop the protective immune response conferred by the vaccine. So, medically, neither doctor was considered “vaccinated” –– not yet. For either of them to be protected, they must be fully vaccinated. For Fiji to be protected, we must fully vaccinate our eligible population.

After further investigation we have narrowed down the number of work contacts of the case 113 –– the garment factory employees –– from 877 to 771. We have tested all of these contacts plus some secondary contacts – with all 791 now testing negative. We continue to investigate whether there are other contacts that need to be screened and tested.

While we do not have any positive results yet from the contacts at the two garment factories, that could change at any point throughout the 14-day incubation window for the virus. That is why these contacts are all under a home quarantine order that will last two weeks from their last contact with case 113. Because we’ve acted quickly to contain these staff, if any do develop the virus, it will be securely detected while they are in quarantine.

There is one reason, above all, as to how we successfully located all of these Fijians. It was because the more than 300,000 people living in Suva and Nausori did their jobs this weekend by staying home. I’ve spoken to the Police, they made only a handful of arrests. Otherwise, the streets were clear. Because of that level of cooperation, my teams were able to do their duty well and quickly, and the lockdown measures came to their end, on schedule, at 0400 hours today. Suva and Nausori are now two separate containment areas. Within both, the restricted movement for essential purposes will be allowed.

Up until midnight, food packs were being delivered to Fijians with a genuine need for assistance. I want to be clear here: We ran this programme for those in the lockdown area because they could not access supermarkets or shops. With supermarkets and shops opening from the early hours of this morning, our food pack assistance is no longer in place. The exact details of the deliveries that were made, as well as plans for any future distribution, will be provided by the Ministry of Economy tomorrow.

Now that the markets are open, we need shop owners and customers to avoid turning them into dangerous hotspots for further transmission. Please ensure that physical distancing is practised, everyone is wearing a mask, and that everyone has the careFIJI app installed and turned on.

And please remember, any movement of any nature can put you at risk. So please only move when you need to move, and return home as soon as you have finished your essential business.

One of our screening zones was the island of Moturiki. Three individuals on the island, from Naicabecabe village, had attended the Tavakubu funeral and spent time with case 74, the staff from the quarantine facility. After a full 14-days of quarantine since their exposure, they have all returned four consecutive negative test results for COVID-19. So, the lockdown of the island has lifted. However, as is the case with all of our rural and maritime communities, we encourage families on Moturiki to stay where they are, stay at home, and limit their movement as much as possible.

Our contact tracing is progressing well elsewhere, with one exception. We have one team from the Malomalo 7s held on April 16th-17th at Lawaqa Park Sigatoka that we have not fully accounted for. This team — Lion Heart — shared a hostel and played with our case number 98, so it is vital we locate all of their players and any other persons who closely interacted or traveled with the team. If you play for this team or know someone who plays for this team, please call 158 right now.

There are currently six large containment areas throughout the country: Suva, Nausori, Lami, Rakiraki, Nadi, and Lautoka. The borders of each are highly restricted and movement within the areas should be limited. We are not considering rolling back the measures for any of these zones until we have a clearer idea of the risk posed to the public. That will require more tests, more screening, and — quite simply — more time. The virus may be lying in wait within any of these containment areas, time is the only strategy that will expose those cases. If we give in to the urge to relax restrictions too early, we may lose our chance to contain the virus for good. That has happened elsewhere — it cannot happen in Fiji.

I saw that yesterday Australia suspended the return of its residents and citizens from India. I want to be clear with everyone: Fiji suspended all international passenger flights from all countries on the 22nd of April, nine days ago. We are not labelling countries as high-risk or low-risk — we simply are not taking passengers from any countries at all. With the exception of those Fijians travelling for medical procedures and those with special approval granted by the Ministry, our quarantine capacity has been directed entirely dedicated towards contacts of local cases in Fiji.

Before we even consider reopening international passenger travel to Fiji, we need a much firmer grasp on this outbreak. And given this outbreak’s index case was at the border, we will be revamping our quarantine facilities with additional CCTV cameras and strengthening our protocols to protect against human error to an even more stringent degree than before.
As for the rest of our COVID-containment infrastructure, our isolation facilities are currently operating at 12% occupancy. It’s our commitment that these facilities are well-prepared and well-supplied, including with food and proper bedding, well before they admit new patients. We did have some hiccups with regards to the early logistics. Those have been worked out. These centres are equipped for comfort and for the care a patient needs to recover from COVID-19. For those living with the virus, there is no safer place to be.

As we shift into the next phase of containment, we are prioritising non-school isolation facilities so that –– once it’s safe –– we’re ready to resume classes. Our students are currently learning from home, which has to suffice for now. But there is a proven benefit to in-person learning, and every day we delay our student’s return to classes risks long-term harm to our human capital.

In consultation with the Ministry of Education, we are considering re-opening the schools on 24 May 2021 — but that judgment depends entirely on our COVID situation at that time. Still, I want parents and students watching to know that getting our children back in classrooms is an urgent priority for the Ministry. Until such time, parents must keep their children at home. Do not bring them shopping, do not send them out with friends. Please, keep them at home.

We contained last year’s outbreak of COVID-19 in 30 days. It has been 15 days since the confirmation of the case that sparked the outbreak we face today, and I’m worried that too many of us think this containment effort will play out on a relatively similar timeline. I very much doubt that it will. It could end soon — I hope it does. But the data is telling us a different story. We are not up against an identical enemy this time around, the chains of transmission are more widespread and the variant is more transmissible. The risks are greater, and our response must be more decisive.

My teams are ready for a containment strategy that lasts months, at a minimum. Every Fijian must be ready as well. Good habits — such as mask-wearing, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when sick, proper handwashing, physical distancing, keeping careFIJI on, and limiting movement — are not temporary or emergency measures. They will be with us for the foreseeable future. Learn them well, and practice them all. The rest of the world has embraced a new way of doing things, a new and safer way of living — so must Fiji. And we should use this time to COVID-proof our lives, our places of work, and our public spaces as much as possible. That will save lives today, and it will keep us safe through whatever comes our way.

I felt the media handled yesterday’s zero-case announcement responsibly in their reporting –– I ask the same of you today. The war against the virus is far from won. We have to test many, many more Fijians in order to get a grip on the spread and stop it. Our case numbers may seem low next to the hundreds of thousands being recorded around the world every day. But they won’t stay low if we do not act responsibly. We must deal soberly with the scale of the threat we face and report honestly on the measures we know can work — including the use of the careFIJI contact tracing application and the widespread administration of COVID-19 vaccines. Science has served us well before –– if we show our respect for science through the actions and decisions we all make every day, it will serve us well again. Keep the faith, Fiji, we will succeed.