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Minister marks anniversary of first Covid-19 cases

Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health, at her office on Church Street in Hamilton (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

The year-long battle against the Covid-19 pandemic was remembered by the health minister yesterday as the island marks the anniversary of the island’s first cases today.

Kim Wilson admitted she was almost overwhelmed in the pandemic’s early stages as she faced another gruelling day.

She told The Royal Gazette: “It has been the worst year of my professional and political life.

“I have never felt so physically and emotionally and mentally drained.”

Ms Wilson admitted she burst into tears outside her ministry as Bermuda’s cases continued to rise.

She said: “I was just bawling. I was like a child.”

Bermuda logged its first two cases a year ago today of the then little-known virus, just over a month after the World Health Organisation coined its name – “Covid-19”.

Both were in residents who flew home earlier – one from Britain and one from the United States.

But the Government, aware of the risk of asymptomatic spread, had already assumed other cases were on the island.

Ms Wilson said: “At that point, we didn’t have the capabilities to do on-island testing.

“But we knew if there were two, there were more than two.”

Bermuda’s first two deaths from the coronavirus would be announced on April 6 – a month that accounted for half of the death toll of 12 from Covid-19 infection.

But Ms Wilson said the public health emergency response team had “started meeting in earnest in January, when we became aware of this particular disease floating around Southeast Asia”.

She added influenza had earlier been the top threat on the team’s radar, and the cause of the previous global pandemic from 2009-20 – H1N1, known as “swine flu”.

Ms Wilson said her first press conference on Covid-19 was held before the February 12 arrival of the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Anthem of the Seas, which was delayed by a scare over the virus that turned out to be unfounded.

She added: “Because of the news, we obviously started looking more carefully and realising this was likely to impact Bermuda, particularly because of us being an international jurisdiction.

“We were seeing cases popping up outside of Southeast Asia, America in particular.”

Mr Wilson said: “In the early stages, nobody knew exactly how it was going to materialise”.

She added Cabinet meetings to discuss protection of the island intensified last March.

She added: “Every decision that we made was a balancing act.

“To close the airport, we knew, would adversely affect the economy, very, very drastically.

“Again, it was evolving. Every 24 hours there were changes.”

Ms Wilson said “it went really fast” after the first case was logged.

New York City, a key gateway city for business travel, saw Covid-19 cases rocket as March wore on.

Ms Wilson said she remembered a “lengthy” emergency Cabinet meeting on a Sunday, with the Government “ in unison insofar as the drastic action we needed”.

She added: “Once a decision was made, recognising the impact it was having in New York, probably our number one gateway, we moved very, very quickly.”

The airport closed on the night of March 20.

Bermuda’s coronavirus cases had reached a total of 17 when a curfew was announced to start on March 29.

Shelter-in-place, which Ms Wilson admitted was “very, very unpopular”, was imposed on April 4.

Ms Wilson also had to race to get her children home – her daughter was at university in Canada and her son was in boarding school in Buffalo, New York.

She said: “I called my daughter and said, you’re not going to have any time to pack. You’re coming home tomorrow.”

Ms Wilson added initial modelling of the spread of infection based on the island’s demographics looked “very, very grim”.

She said: “Closing the borders and moving to shelter-in-place as quickly as we did helped minimise the spread, because we didn’t have people in groups.

“I think that’s what helped spare us.”

A worst-case scenario that factored in an elderly population with widespread chronic health ailments such as diabetes predicted up to 700 deaths.

Ms Wilson said “notwithstanding we have lost 12 lives” she had not dared to hope the death toll would be so low.

She added: “If our hospital was overrun, it would have been horribly problematic.”

There were six deaths in April as the coronavirus spread in nursing homes.

Ms Wilson said her only break was a few hours in May, for Mother’s Day.

She added the ministry also battled to get personal protective equipment and to overcome an early shortage of swabs for testing.

Ms Wilson said: “We did have challenges getting it. We knew we needed to, because we were seeing shortages.

“We were looking at every source, everywhere on the globe.”

She said US Congressman G.K. Butterfield, whose father is Bermudian, helped secure the release of a container of high-protection N95 masks after President Donald Trump slapped an export ban on PPE on April 3.

Another consignment of equipment from China was delayed by the Labour Day holiday in Hong Kong on May 1.

Covid-19: By the Numbers

Number of Covid-19 cases through this week: 742

Breakdown of cases: 221 imported, 516 local transmission, five under investigation

Death toll: 12

Active cases of Covid-19 this week: 30

Doses of vaccination distributed as of Monday: 30,481

Amount of population with both doses received: 18 per cent

Registrations for the vaccine: 22,298

Number of test results: 180,000

The island wrestled its Covid-19 numbers down after a series of spikes.

But Ms Wilson said it had been “extremely frustrating and painful” to see infections increase in recent months because some “ extremely selfish, inconsiderate individuals” ignored the rules.

Ms Wilson said “aggressive testing” at the country’s borders was a main driver of the island’s successes.

She said masks and handwashing would remain fixtures, but herd immunity through vaccination would allow “a semblance of a summer”.

Ms Wilson added: “Just imagine – we could go on a boat this summer.”

She praised the dogged determination of her ministry team over a year from hell.

Ms Wilson said: “I wouldn’t want to be in war with anybody else except this team.

“They really, really are stellar. Each and every one of them performed above and beyond what was expected.”

⋅ Ms Wilson was interviewed for this article on March 12. To read a transcript, click on the PDF under “Related Media”. The interview has been edited.

⋅ How did Covid-19 affect your life? Share your stories with us at news@royalgazette.com.

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Published March 18, 2021 at 8:20 am (Updated March 18, 2021 at 8:35 pm)

Minister marks anniversary of first Covid-19 cases

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