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Vaccines: time to stop having it both ways

Island supplies of a number of vaccines for children are in short supply for the second time in nine months

The 17 coronavirus-related deaths announced between Friday and Monday shattered the final hopes of anyone clinging to the idea that somehow this fourth wave of Covid-19 was less severe than its predecessors.

Those in power — starting with David Burt, the Premier — need to admit that the policies now in place to contain this outbreak have failed.

That is not to say that those who decide what distancing and quarantine measures will be put in place are entirely to blame for not foreseeing the gravity of the situation. The Delta variant of the coronavirus is incredibly dangerous and that is something few health experts, let alone politicians, could have predicted in June.

So this is not the time for recriminations, although an inquiry into the Government's overall handling of the full crisis is needed, if only to learn lessons for the future.

But for now, it needs to be recognised that the existing policy is not working. Its primary goal, to prevent the hospital from being overwhelmed, has clearly failed. Frontline intensive care unit doctors, nurses and support staff are handling far beyond what anyone can be reasonably asked to do. They need help now.

We now know that where the original Covid-19 might take up to 15 minutes to spread from one person to another, the Delta variant can infect another person in seconds. We know that the six-foot distance rule is probably inadequate. We know that Delta, much more than the original Covid-19 or earlier variants, can break through to vaccinated people, although unvaccinated people are much more at risk. We also know it can infect people who have already had Covid-19.

We know that the Delta variant is far more deadly for the unvaccinated than earlier mutations, and that in particular, people with suppressed immune systems are highly vulnerable.

Many of the earlier assumptions about where Bermuda stood need to be adjusted. The vaccinated cannot assume they are safe. The unvaccinated certainly cannot. Mask wearing, as the second-most effective way after vaccines of preventing the spread of the virus, is essential. Where possible, isolating and working from home makes eminent sense.

There is some good news. There are some early tentative signs that the outbreak may have peaked last week. We know that although the vaccinated can catch the Delta variant, the symptoms are generally less severe. We now know that at least four vaccinated people have died this month. But we need to know if they were immunosuppressed or vulnerable in other ways. It seems clear, and the health authorities should provide the data to back this up, that vaccines remain the single most effective way of containing the virus.

Bermuda's survival depends on earning foreign exchange, which can then be spent on food and other essentials that we cannot produce in sufficient quantities. Bermuda earns that foreign currency by having tourists come to the island and by having international businesspeople travel to and from the island to generate business. Both of these sectors in turn generate virtually all of the other jobs that exist on the island.

For that reason, Bermuda does not have the luxury of a country such as New Zealand of literally closing its borders or having every visitor quarantine for 14 days before joining the community. So Bermuda will always be vulnerable to the spread of the virus or a new variant.

This is the dilemma the Government faces. It could only close the borders and impose a lockdown until the present outbreak dies out at the cost of an untenable economic shutdown and yet more borrowing to keep people alive.

But nor can Bermuda carry on as it is now, with an overwhelmed hospital, a mounting death toll and 90 or 100 new cases a day. It is untenable.

So the Government needs to do more. In the short term, it needs to:

• Extend the curfew in order to reduce the amount of time people are together from outside of their family groups

• Strongly encourage all those who can work from home to do so

• Go back to mandating social distancing in shops and restaurants

• End all large-group exemptions, even where SafeKey has been applied

Mr Burt has insisted that the present spread is not owing to SafeKey events, but he cannot know this for certain; there are something like 1,000 cases under investigation as we speak, and people are being asked to do their own contact tracing. In the meantime, large gatherings have to stop for all in order to contain this outbreak.

These are the short-term measures that are needed at a minimum to get this outbreak under control. There may be others.

In the long term, Bermuda has to kick-start its stalled vaccination programme. It needs to provide booster shots immediately to the immunosuppressed and the most vulnerable. They are dying right now.

As the Government has stated, it needs to then encourage 12 to 18-year-olds to get vaccinated. The rule here should be quite simple. When a school gets to 80 per cent or 90 per cent immunisation, in-class learning can resume. Until then, students will have to stay at home and schools will have to continue with remote learning, as inconvenient as that is.

This newspaper earlier suggested that employers should be able to use SafeKey as a means of opening their offices or businesses. But it is now clear that Bermuda's testing capabilities cannot handle thousands of people being tested every three days simply because they refuse to get vaccinated. So the alternative is for employers, starting with the hospital and other essential services, to mandate vaccinations. And employers should not be able to open the places of work until they reach the same levels of vaccination.

Mr Burt has stated that if people simply obeyed the rules that are in place, Bermuda could contain this outbreak. He may be right. But at this point he resembles a despairing parent telling onlookers that he is telling his rowdy children to behave themselves but they just won't listen. As every parent knows, there comes a time when actions must have consequences. Just as children have to be taken home, put in their rooms and lose privileges or worse, so those who will not follow the rules of social distancing have to face consequences.

This must include proper enforcement of the rules to make sure they are obeyed, limited social interaction until this outbreak is brought under control and a renewed effort by the Government to encourage and mandate vaccinations.

To be blunt, the time for lip service, gentle persuasion and “consult your physician” is over. The vast majority of physicians are rightly urging people to get vaccinated. The island’s civic leaders need to stop trying to have it both ways.

People are dying. What more needs to be said?

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Published September 29, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated September 28, 2021 at 3:31 pm)

Vaccines: time to stop having it both ways

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