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It is not flesh we are after – but the truth

There are those who will say that now is not the time to question the Government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Royal Gazette is not among them.

It is possible, as we have, to acknowledge and support the strong and apparently effective measures the Government has taken to curb the virus, while also probing public interest issues. It's our job.

That is why we make no apology for reporting a valid question about why every resident and employee at Westmeath Residential and Nursing Home wasn't screened for Covid-19 when a senior nurse there tested positive for the virus on April 10.

After all, just the day before, David Burt said publicly that he had told the Ministry of Health to “have all residents and staff in affected nursing homes be tested”.

The Premier said: “We have an aggressive testing regime and we will test all possible cases to ensure we break any chain of transmission.”

His words were reassuring.

Mr Burt, with the calm, confident air he has exuded throughout this crisis, seemed to be saying the Government would leave no stone unturned to identify positive cases at “affected” homes and ensure those individuals were isolated to avoid passing the virus on to anyone else.

But promises made by politicians and actions taken by governments don't always match up, as was the case here.

We now know that on April 11, the Premier was e-mailed by the head of the trustees at Westmeath about the first case there. Barbara Lee asked him to test everyone at the home as a matter of urgency.

She told him the nurse was at work on April 8 when she developed symptoms.

“This is a key member of staff wandering throughout the facility and interacting with residents/patients and staff while having symptoms,” wrote Mrs Lee. “She now tests positive.”

On April 12, the Government's nurse epidemiologist told Westmeath that four of its management staff had been exposed to Covid-19. She described it as “potential high-risk exposure”.

Westmeath was clearly an “affected” home at that point.

Yet a positive result for a senior nurse who interacted with staff and vulnerable residents while having symptoms didn't prompt immediate testing of everyone there.

Mrs Lee publicly questioned why that was the case on our front page on Wednesday, after it was revealed to the public by the Ministry of Health that another nurse — a casual employee who also worked at Matilda Smith Williams Seniors Residence — had tested positive, along with an elderly resident.

In light of what we know about the devastation that Covid-19 causes in nursing homes, Mrs Lee's question was a reasonable one.

But it prompted an outburst from the Premier at that evening's press conference, when he claimed some wanted their pound of flesh and took satisfaction in getting it.

No satisfaction here, Mr Burt.

We just wanted to understand the methodology behind the decision not to test everyone at Westmeath on April 10 and the same decision not to test all on April 14, when a second nurse was identified as having Covid-19.

We wanted to be told in layman's terms, for there was much that we, as non-experts, did not understand.

Testing for everyone at Westmeath didn't happen until a resident was found to be positive on April 20. The home was confirmed at the weekend as having 13 positive cases of Covid-19, with one of those residents passing away yesterday.

Health minister Kim Wilson had her own outburst on Friday, after we reported the ten additional positive cases.

She claimed we shared the information publicly before the affected patients and their families were aware.

To the best of our knowledge, we did not do that; nor could we have.

Ms Wilson explained in a statement on Saturday why the public were not alerted to the first positive case at Westmeath.

She said: “That case did not involve a resident, was appropriately contained and, in fact, as it turned out, this case was not linked to the second or third cases ... Investigations were carried out and risk was appropriately contained after the first case.”

Ms Wilson did not explain why the public were not alerted to the second Westmeath case, involving the casual nurse, who also worked at a home where Covid-19 had already broken out.

The result for the casual nurse came on April 14, after it was known for certain that the coronavirus had started to spread at Matilda Smith Williams, so surely her case posed a public health risk.

It must have been a potential chain of transmission that needed to be broken.

But Ms Wilson said testing of everyone did not happen after either the first or second positive result “because the characteristics of the case did not warrant testing at the time. When these occurred, the case criteria, which is linked to testing capacity, were not met”.

If that was another way of saying we didn't have enough tests and so had to limit testing to people with symptoms, then why not say so?

Instead, the health minister's comments left more questions than answers, so we probed. And probed.

How could Ms Wilson say the first case at Westmeath was “appropriately contained” when the head of the trustees told Mr Burt the nurse interacted with other staff and patients on April 8 when she had symptoms?

The first positive case in a resident was confirmed on April 20 — less than 14 days after the nurse took sick.

Unless there was a way of knowing with absolute surety where someone caught the coronavirus, how could Ms Wilson be so sure about which cases were linked?

Doesn't contact tracing give only a strong indication of where someone got the virus, not 100 per cent certainty?

The Government appeared intent last week on separating in the public's mind the first case at Westmeath from the other cases there.

So much so that the head of the Department of Communications called one of our journalists late on Tuesday evening to caution against the Westmeath story we had planned for the next day.

Our reporters, meanwhile, were shut down at press conferences when asking questions on the same topic.

Behind the scenes we kept asking and last night the Premier, in response to questions about Mrs Lee's email, said he gave a clear order for testing to take place at Westmeath but that “regrettably” it didn't occur.

Mr Burt admitted lessons had been learnt. His response didn't give the level of detail we hoped for, but it showed the questions were justified.

The lack of testing and transparency on April 10 — and again on April 14 — flew in the face of his assurances to the public on April 9.

We implore the Government to share clear, understandable, timely information with the public and not get caught up in crisis PR.

The health minister and her team must ensure they properly explain the methodology used to assess the public health risk from positive cases.

News that any nursing home in Bermuda has positive cases of Covid-19 is news to lament.

The numbers represent real people, deeply loved members of our community.

They are not abstract to us. Many of them are our relatives and our friends. All of them matter.

That is why we welcome Ms Wilson's statement on Saturday that Bermuda's testing capacity has now been “significantly bolstered and the Government's policy is to test all residents and staff at all rest homes, which is being done now”.

That is why we will continue to scrutinise the words and actions of our leaders, ask searching questions and provide a forum for our community to raise matters of public interest.

In short, we want the truth.

Not because we are looking for a pound of flesh, but because we are acutely aware — like the Premier and all his hard-working team — that lives are at stake.

When they see us: David Burt, the Premier, and health minister Kim Wilson have come out swinging against the media when they have felt the Government has been cast in a bad light in this coronavirus crisis. There would be fewer instances of dispute were the lines of communication fluid, transparent and uninterrupted by red tape (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published April 27, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated April 27, 2020 at 8:49 am)

It is not flesh we are after – but the truth

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