Thank you all for joining me this evening.
I’d like to extend to all of you my warmest wishes for the new year.
I am very optimistic about the many blessings that 2022 will bring to The Bahamas, but there’s no doubt we’re going to have a difficult start to the new year.
Tonight, I’m going to update you on the latest COVID-19 news, share information about actions the government is taking to reduce the impact of the virus, and recommend ways you can contribute to keeping yourself, your families, and your communities safer.
A NEW PHASE
As many of you know, we have seen a large surge in COVID case numbers during the first week of January.
The world has battled with COVID for two years, and we are now entering a new phase of the pandemic.
What makes this a new phase?
Firstly: the Delta and Omicron variants that are circulating right now are very, very transmissible.
On average, each person who is infected passes the virus to a much larger number of people than was the case with the initial strain of the virus that emerged two years ago.
These very contagious variants are causing cases to skyrocket across the globe.
Records are being shattered in countries worldwide, from the United States, where more than a million new cases have been recorded in a single day, to countries in Europe, to Mexico, to the Philippines, and beyond.
Secondly: the Omicron variant, which is even more contagious than the very contagious Delta variant, is also showing a powerful ability to cause reinfections in those who have had COVID in the past.
It is also causing breakthrough infections in those who are vaccinated.
As we’ll talk about in a moment, vaccinations still provide powerful protection against experiencing severe illness – but with Omicron, they are not as effective as with previous variants in preventing infections.
The fact that Omicron is ultra-contagious and causes both reinfections and breakthrough infections in the vaccinated means we will see very high case counts.
But there’s some good news.
The third element of this new phase in the pandemic is that more than 150,000 Bahamians are vaccinated, and nearly all of those who are vaccinated are protected from the worst COVID outcomes.
We also have boosters available, and I urge all of you who are vaccinated, especially those who are 60 and older, to take the booster.
It provides substantial additional protection against the virus.
And the fourth is that Omicron appears to cause less severe disease generally, with reduced impact on the lungs, so in many places, it appears that fewer COVID patients require ventilation and ICU care than during previous surges.
These factors combine to make this a new phase, with new implications for both government policy and for the steps we can take personally to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
With several million new cases recorded globally every day, we are going to see very high case counts here, too.
The vast majority of vaccinated Bahamians will experience Omicron either as an asymptomatic infection, or a bad cold, or suffer through a few days of aches and pains.
However, a tiny percentage will require hospitalization.
Nonetheless, our hospitals face a very serious threat.
That’s because there are still many thousands of unvaccinated Bahamians, and many will become infected with Omicron.
This virus is going to hit our unvaccinated population very hard.
Even though a smaller percentage will require hospitalization than with previous variants, remember how extremely contagious Omicron is; a small percentage of a very large number is still a lot of people, and can overwhelm our hospitals.
Indeed, on Thursday of last week, the Director of the World Health Organization warned that a “tsunami” of cases was overwhelming health systems across the world.
So, let’s talk about the priorities of our government policies during this new phase.
We want the best health outcomes for Bahamians.
We want to protect our hospitals and keep them functioning as well as they can under this tremendous pressure.
And at the same time, we need to manage this very dire health crisis without forgetting about the very serious economic crisis we face.
When I came into office several months ago, it was during the worst fiscal and economic crisis in our history.
Although we’re now finally heading in the right direction, we’re still in a very serious place.
We have more than $10 billion in debt, and the only way forward is through sustained economic growth.
I spent much of 2020 and 2021 traveling the country, from north to south, and what I saw in home after home and in community after community convinced me that the economic crisis, made worse by closed borders and lockdowns, caused at least as much pain and anguish as the health crisis.
Since March 2020, we have had a dashboard for COVID cases – but what if over the same time, we’d had a dashboard that showed how many small businesses were closing, or how many Bahamian families fell out of middle class into poverty?
Our economic crisis is so severe that it simply must be part of our considerations as we manage the health crisis.
This is why we have prioritized economic measures to stimulate the economy, and spur economic activity so that people can start earning and spending again.
This is why we reduced VAT to 10%, and increased pay and pension support to get cash flowing again.
We have established a debt management committee and taken aggressive steps to promote confidence amongst international investors and lenders.
Many Bahamians are earning their first paychecks in a long time, many Bahamian-owned businesses are taking their first steps to recover, and as a country we are finally seeing the beginning of a turnaround in our revenue situation.
And we can see from the varying policy responses to COVID across the world that there is no consensus, no one right answer, no perfectly balanced set of policies to address both health and economic concerns simultaneously.
Instead, we must stay flexible, learn from the science and from the experience of other countries, and respond to the needs of our people.
I am in constant touch with our health team, as we follow and examine data and use it to make the best policy decisions possible here.
Previously, large surges of cases in our closest neighbour, the United States, have preceded a wave of cases here in The Bahamas, so we anticipated this surge and have been preparing.
OUR NEW POLICIES
Yesterday, after successful free testing pilot programmes in Eleuthera, Inagua, Bimini and the Berry Islands, we began free testing here in New Providence.
It has been clear to me since the start of the pandemic that free testing is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
Your ability to know whether or not you have COVID should not depend on your income or wealth. And once people learn they are positive, which only testing can confirm, especially with a virus that produces so many asymptomatic cases, people can take steps to protect others around them.
The 400 slots we offered daily were filled very quickly, so we expanded the number of free tests to 800 today and we will offer 1000 a day beginning on Tuesday. We will also, of course, be expanding free testing nationwide.
We have also started the distribution of free medical-grade masks at clinics and at vaccination sites in New Providence.
In the coming week, we will also be distributing these masks at schools, for the teachers who are working there now, and in churches as well.
Properly worn medical-grade masks are far more effective in blocking transmission of the Delta and Omicron viruses. Cloth masks alone are just not effective enough.
We are working with NEMA to expand the distribution of free masks to Grand Bahama and the Family Islands as well; we expect to have more details for you later this week.
Until you receive your medical-grade mask, I urge you to double mask and to make sure the material of the masks is tight across your mouth and nose.
The importance of masking goes up when you are indoors where there is no fresh air to disperse virus particles.
When someone with COVID breathes, or talks, or coughs or sneezes, they exhale small infectious virus particles that can hang in the air for hours indoors – long after they’re gone — if the space is not ventilated.
If you wear the right mask and you wear it properly, you are reducing the amount of virus particles you inhale substantially.
This is one of the best ways to stay safe in the coming weeks.
We are launching a new public education campaign, beginning with a virtual Town Hall with Doctors, this Tuesday at 8pm. We have been encouraging Bahamians to send in their questions on the virus, the new variant, vaccines, boosters, and more, so that doctors can provide the most up-to-date information.
This is only the start of our efforts to share information about the Omicron variant and this new phase of COVID.
There have been real heroes during this pandemic.
I am especially thinking about the staff at our hospitals and clinics, who have worked so hard and so tirelessly, under very difficult circumstances and at considerable risk to themselves and their families.
But there have also been villains, and in this category, I include all those who have used social media to spread misinformation and disinformation, fabrications and conspiracy theories.
I have only contempt for those who seek to profit from lies that harm our people.
The best way to fight bad information is with good information.
We’ll continue our public education efforts via Public Service Announcements and, in the coming days, launch a new website, where we will pull together in one place all of the information you need. This includes answers to your medical questions, details about where you can go to receive your free masks, tests, vaccinations, and boosters, and updated information about current restrictions and travel protocols.
As many of you know, we have tightened requirements for entry at our border; travelers had been required to present a negative result from a test taken within five days of arrival – now the requirement is within three days of arrival.
While we preferred to require PCR tests, the testing shortages and delayed lab reporting in many countries, including in the United States, made this – for the moment – unworkable for returning Bahamians and visitors alike.
We have been expanding our capacity to meet the expected increase in hospitalizations.
We have opened four tents at Princess Margaret Hospital, and we have successfully recruited 50 additional nurses and 12 doctors.
We are expanding both our infrastructure and our human resources.
We are also expanding our vaccine and booster access and outreach.
Omicron is so transmissible that nearly all of us are likely to face multiple exposures to the virus in the coming weeks.
And the question for every Bahamian is: how ready will your body be to fight off the virus?
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you are vaccinated, and especially if you are vaccinated and boosted, you have given yourself an excellent chance at experiencing the virus merely as an inconvenience, rather than as a life-threatening disease.
I am encouraged to see many Bahamians continue to sign up to be vaccinated.
By now, approximately 4 billion people worldwide have been fully vaccinated.
The COVID vaccines have saved millions of lives and is one of modern science’s most extraordinary achievements.
If you are not vaccinated, you are at serious risk.
Please come to one of our vaccine sites; there are three in New Providence, one in Grand Bahama, and vaccines are available in clinics throughout the Family Islands.
We will be making additional announcements about mobile outreach and pop-up sites as well.
Don’t delay a moment longer. The vaccine starts to offer some protection 14 days after the first shot.
And getting vaccinated doesn’t just protect you personally.
As I said earlier, it will largely be the unvaccinated who will fill our hospitals in the weeks to come. Despite our expanded capacity, if our country’s path follows the path of other countries, including countries with many more resources, our hospitals are likely to experience very considerable strain.
Our health care professionals are vulnerable to Omicron, too, and they need to isolate when they become infected.
This matters to everyone.
We all need a functioning health care system – when our child gets appendicitis, when our neighbour needs cancer surgery, when our aunt needs treatment for a heart condition, when our teenager gets in a car accident.
I’m urging Bahamians to make decisions in the coming weeks with an understanding that all of us are in this together.
If you are young and willing to take your chances with Omicron, are you also willing to take that chance with your grammy, if you should pass that virus on to her?
We need to do our best to protect each other.
Some people have diseases or take medications that do not allow them to build strong immunity, even when vaccinated.
May I remind you that there is no approved vaccine yet for children younger than five years old.
I understand that people are fed up with restricted lives. We all are. But we need to slow the growth of cases to give our hospitals a chance to keep up.
I’ve even heard some young people say they want to catch COVID – so they can get it over with. Here’s why this is too risky an approach.
Firstly, as I mentioned, you can pass it on to someone else who may be more vulnerable.
For those of us who have had COVID, this is the true agony – not the symptoms we experience, but the fear we may have made others sick.
You do not want to be in this position.
Secondly, you cannot be sure that you will fare well.
Tragically, we have lost young Bahamians to COVID.
Thirdly, some percentage of people with COVID will have what is known as Long COVID, with symptoms that persist long past the initial infection.
For these reasons, everyone should do their best to avoid the virus.
If you have cold or flu symptoms, or if you know you have been exposed to someone who has COVID, please get tested, and do not go to work or gather with others until you have your test result.
Activities that were safe a month ago are no longer safe – we must adjust for the time being.
- Outside is always safer than inside; limit your time indoors to whatever extent is possible.
- When you’re inside – open as many windows and doors as you can, to reduce the number of virus particles that stay in the air.
- Wear your masks. Double-mask until you have a medical-grade mask.
- If you are vaccinated, get your booster shot.
- If you are unvaccinated, you are at serious risk – please do what billions have done safely worldwide and get vaccinated.
I explained earlier that our policies are designed to reduce transmission risk while still supporting economic activity.
Sometimes, these twin goals are in contradiction with each other.
It’s not an easy balancing act, and some of you may think we’re getting some of these decisions wrong.
All I can do is assure you we are working every day to balance the health and economic interests of the country.
In this new phase of the pandemic, there are no easy paths forward.
We want to know with certainty the course the virus will take, instead we have to live with uncertainty.
We want the pandemic to be over, but instead we’re in the hardest phase yet, one that requires even more vigilance to stay safe.
But when we are tested, we can respond with strength and determination.
I know we can weather the storm together:
That’s why we’re building a big coalition, with everyone working together: the government, our medical community, the private sector, local and international non-profits, churches, and most importantly: YOU.
Because we’re going to do what Bahamians do best, which is take care of each other when things get tough.
May God Bless and Keep Each One of You, and May God Bless The Bahamas.