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Statement by the Permanent Secretary for Health & Medical Services
COVID-19 Situation Update
Wednesday, 11th August 2021
As always, I will start by providing you with the latest updates on our COVID-19 situation and then get to how this has informed our decisions.
Over the past 24 hour period, we have 568 new cases of COVID-19. Of this, 262 cases are from the Western Division and 306 cases are from the Central Division.
I want to start by saying this is a significant drop in daily reported cases is not celebratory news. This should not be misinterpreted as a true reduction of COVID-19 cases in these two divisions. Over the last few weeks, we have had to shift and re-strategize our COVID-19 testing strategy to address the significant pressure on our laboratories and health services. This includes being more targeted with our testing so we can provide a rapid turnaround of results for those most at risk of severe COVID-19. We can anticipate that these shifts have an impact on our daily reported case numbers and this is why it is critical that we use various data to inform our understanding of the current situation in these divisions.
Currently, our surveillance teams are rapidly analyzing various data sources to help us build a clearer picture of the current transmission in these two divisions. However, we do know that the risk of exposure to the virus in both Central and Western divisions remains extremely high with significant community transmission of the virus.
On a more positive note, since our last update, there have been 664 new recoveries, which means that there are now 24,299 active cases. This adds to a total of 38,344 cases detected during the outbreak that started in April 2021.
We also have an additional thirteen COVID-19 deaths to report, bringing our total to 340 since March of 2020.
Three of these people whose deaths were caused by COVID-19 had received the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before they died. However, we know from the timeline of when their symptoms first developed that two of these individuals were infected with the virus before they got the second dose of the vaccine. We must understand that there is a difference between cure and prevention. The vaccine is not a cure for COVID-19, which means it will not help if you get vaccinated when you are already infected and sick with the virus. The vaccine helps to prevent you from getting COVID-19 and dying from it. Two doses of the vaccine help to lower your risk of getting infected with the virus and greatly reduces your risk of severe disease and death.
The third patient got sick with COVID-19 and died within two weeks of the second dose. As we have made clear in numerous past statements, you must have two doses of the vaccine and wait at least two weeks after the second dose to be considered fully vaccinated. This is because your immune system needs at least two weeks to react to the vaccine and form a protective response. So, to be considered fully vaccinated, you need to receive both doses and wait two weeks after the second dose for the full protection to take effect.
No one in Fiji has died from COVID-19 after they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Dr. Aalisha will walk us through the timelines associated with these three deaths.
THE DELTA VARIANT
The situation we are fighting here in Fiji is reflective of the situation many countries are currently responding to. Globally the Delta variant has resulted in a global surge in COVID-19 cases and is now the dominant strain of the virus. From June to July 2021, the WHO reported that COVID-19 infections increased globally by 80%.
Over the past few weeks, we have also seen a spike in dangerous misinformation and individuals posing as experts providing incorrect facts about COVID-19. We are concerned that people who are inclined to resist the vaccine will cling to that misinformation or even misconstrue facts that are reported correctly, threatening the efforts of our teams trying to provide the best protection possible for our communities. So I want to start by explaining the facts about the current situation and this Delta variant.
The WHO has described the Delta variant as the most transmissible variant to date, with the virus capable of more easily infecting a person, as well as causing that person to be more infectious.
It is more transmissible than the common cold or influenza. It is more transmissible than smallpox, MERS, SARS, or Ebola –– it is just as, if not more, transmissible than chickenpox. It may be one of the most infectious respiratory viruses humanity has ever encountered.
This increased infectiousness is also reflected in what we see in countries that have seen rapid and frightening surges in COVID-19 cases, like in the UK, USA, and India.
Here in Fiji, the science and evidence also show us that we are on the right track with responding to this new strain. The latest global data tells us the vaccine does reduce the risk of symptomatic disease from the virus. And while some people may still be infected with the virus when fully vaccinated, COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at reducing a person’s risk of becoming seriously ill, needing hospitalization or dying from COVID-19. After one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, a person is provided 71% protection from being severely ill or hospitalized; and this goes up to 92% protection after their second dose.
So while we know that some people may still be infected even if they are fully vaccinated, these vaccines provide life-saving protection from severe COVID-19 and death. A fully vaccinated person may still get infected with the virus, however, they will likely experience only mild or no symptoms because of the protection provided by these vaccines.
For instance, in the UK where they have a high vaccination coverage rate, they are now seeing surges of cases due to Delta variant, however, their daily hospitalizations and deaths have been less than previous COVID-19 outbreaks.
For the US, we can see a similar picture where they are reporting significant spikes of COVID-19 cases and deaths in areas with high unvaccinated communities. Their hospitals and intensive care units are full of unvaccinated.
These experiences from other countries and also the latest guidance from global experts provide us a picture of what we can anticipate for the future here in Fiji. If we reach our goal of at least 80% vaccination of our target population, while we may still see individuals infected with the virus, we will not see nearly as many people becoming seriously ill, needing hospitalization or dying from COVID-19. Our ultimate goal remains for us to protect our friends, family, and colleagues from becoming seriously ill or dying from this virus. And vaccines are the best way to do that.
Recent global studies have also shown that these vaccines reduce the risk of the virus spreading to other household members. In short, these vaccines will protect those who take them but also, to some extent, those that the vaccinated person comes into contact with. So we should all be vaccinated, not only for our health, but for the health of those around us, our families, friends, co-workers, and customers. The clear message that is reverberating from renowned health institutions such as US CDC, and others, and the experience of many nations around the world that are facing the same challenge as we are, is that widespread immunity through vaccines is the only sustainable way out of this pandemic.
Given the increased transmissibility of new variants of concern, however, we know that vaccination alone is not an answer – we must continue to apply all of the public health measures in our toolbox that we know are effective also against these variants – like wearing masks, washing hands frequently and maintaining physical distance from others outside our immediate household. We are still a long way from having at least 80% of the population fully vaccinated, so these are prudent measures despite our improving vaccine coverage.
For those in our community who have yet to be vaccinated, I want to again remind you to listen to the facts and not be misguided by the misinformation and rumors spreading within our community. The decisions you make not only affect you but those in your family, the broader community, and as a country.
That being said, I want to remind everyone, vaccinated or not, we all need to stay alert to our own health and immediately self-isolate if you have symptoms of COVID-19.
TIMELINE FOR RELAXATION OF HEALTH MEASURES
While we are daily responding to the current situation, adjusting where necessary based upon new and emerging issues, we are also planning for the future. As part of our larger mitigation strategy, there are two major factors driving our decision-making. The first is the extent of community transmission. Second is the progress of our vaccination campaign.
We established the border of the Lami-Nausori Containment Zone because of the high number of clusters within that specific containment area. Since this time we have seen increasing cases on both sides of the border, meaning that we now will be considering the benefits of keeping these measures in place.
With the rise of cases in the West, as well as increasing vaccination coverage, we are now reviewing the purpose and utility of the containment zone border entirely. Any adjustments to this containment zone will depend on the number of vaccines provided to our communities, in addition to vaccination coverage for specific locations. We know there are communities that will see higher flows of traffic once the containment zone border is lifted, particularly places along the Coral Coast highway that are stopover areas for people commuting between Suva and Lautoka. Our health teams will be imminently surveying these areas to confirm what percentage of these communities have been vaccinated before we consider lifting the border. Where we do not see sufficient vaccine coverage, we are deploying our stock of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, which has a shorter timeline for full immunization.
We are also considering a revision to the curfew hours. Again, the decision hinges on vaccine coverage. The fact that we are considering these changes should not equate to complacency. This outbreak is far from over –– every technical factor shows the risk of transmission is extremely high across Viti Levu. We do not have a specific date for you today as to when the border will be lifted or when the curfew hours will change. But we know when those actions are taken they will be accompanied by more stringent enforcement of our existing health measures –– particularly our blanket restriction on social gatherings.
Travel from Viti Levu to the North and to the maritime islands remains highly regulated with pre-departure and quarantine protocols in place. We have no positive cases in those areas –– that is a very good thing and we all want to keep it that way. So we have no near-term plans to change the protocols around inter-island travel. Life in those areas should continue as it is –– there’s no sense in putting everyone in those regions at risk.
The Ministry’s strategy remains to prioritize vaccinating the most vulnerable subgroups –– people older than 60, pregnant women, people with co-morbidities, and other vulnerable groups–as quickly as possible. One thing we know for sure: Vaccination is safe for people with chronic illnesses, and the Covid virus is extremely dangerous for people with chronic illnesses. So the choice is clear – get vaccinated or take the risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. Again we recommend anyone who falls into these vulnerable categories make arrangements to get vaccinated right away. Mobile vaccination teams will intensify their efforts to reach the elderly and others who may not be able to go out for vaccination.
In the Central division, we have also strengthened our Home Isolation admission and discharge protocol to ensure that the data we are using to follow up patients who are on home isolation protocol is updated and robust. In this regard, we may have unintentionally missed out on some individuals who should have been discharged from home isolation by now. Therefore, we wish to inform residents of the Lami-Nausori containment zone, that if you have been in home isolation prior to 27 July 2021, and do not have any symptoms of COVID-19, you can end your period of home isolation from today, Wednesday, 11 August 2021. If you still have symptoms of COVID-19, please present yourself to your nearest screening clinic or health facility for further assessment and advice. You can also call 158 for further advice.
One troubling trend we’re still seeing is patients arriving at hospitals dead on arrival due to COVID-19. It’s upsetting. Worse, it’s unnecessary. We have established a hotline to detect cases of severe disease. We have teams ready to deploy and transport patients to hospitals. Please keep an eye on your loved ones –– particularly if they are older or have underlying health conditions. If they have serious flu-like symptoms, please report them so that they can receive the potentially life-saving care that they need. There is no cure for COVID, but there are measures we can take that can still save someone’s life if we have the chance to do so.
FEMAT –– our emergency response team –– is currently conducting more medical evacuations in areas outside of the current Lami-Nausori Containment Zone than from within it. We’re having discussions with the Police to ensure that people outside of the Lami-Nausori Containment Zone have full and efficient access to emergency retrieval teams, and they should call 165 if they, or someone in their household, have developed severe flu-like symptoms.
In summary, this delta virus has changed the nature of our battle especially in regards to vaccine breakthrough infections but remember this:
- The risk of severe disease or death is reduced 10-fold or greater in vaccinated individuals, so vaccine mandates will protect the vulnerable population
- The risk of transmission is reduced in the vaccinated
- All other community mitigation strategies must be fully enforced. Wear your masks, maintain your physical distance, wash your hands often, and do not gather socially. And keep your careFIJI app switched on at all times you are outside your home.
We need to take all these measures while we continue our vaccination program with the goal of vaccinating all adults in Fiji. We need a minimum of 80% of adults fully vaccinated, and I would like to get 100% coverage if possible.
Then, as more data emerges worldwide about the safety of the vaccine in children, we will make a decision about recommending the vaccine for children who are at least 12 years old.
Our basic message remains:
Everyone should arrange to get fully vaccinated.
Maintain the COVID-safe practices we know.
Isolate yourself if you have mild symptoms.
Call 165 to receive treatment if you have severe symptoms.
We all need to do our part to contain the spread of this virus.