As Bimini emerges as COVID-19 hotspot, are Family Islands ready for possible outbreaks?

Community spread of the novel coronavirus remains a concern for the capital and now for the tiny island of Bimini. Health officials have declared Bimini the new hotspot for COVID-19 infections as the number of confirmed cases jumped from just one at the beginning of April to 11 more than four weeks later. Senior health officials are now seriously considering implementing a two-week lockdown on the northern island. Bimini recorded its first case with the death of beloved resident Kim Johnson-Rolle. She was diagnosed posthumously. Her death was also recorded as the first COVID-19-related death for The Bahamas and sparked concerns among the island’s residents and many throughout the archipelago about the government’s ability to properly manage response to cases on the islands. At the time, testing was only being condcted in New Providence. As a result, the measures in place called for suspected cases to be transported to the capital.  In Kim Johnson Rolle’s case, that transport came a little too late – it took some 36 hours and came via a defense force aircraft. Dr. Duane Sands, who was Minister of Health at the time, told reporters the Bimini woman died shortly after arriving at Princess Margaret Hospital and that “every effort” was made to get her the required medical care. It was later revealed that the air ambulance flight that should have taken her to the capital the day before wasn’t properly equipped with the isolation units needed to safely transport her. To be clear, Rolle had not yet been diagnosed with COVID-19. She was tested and confirmed to have the virus only after she had already died. Family members say she had travelled to Florida two weeks before her death and complained of chest pains after returning to Bimini. At some point, she went to the island’s clinic and it was reported that she was having trouble breathing and became critically ill. That is when the decision was made to transport her to the capital for further care and to be tested. Responding to questions put to him about the availability of ventilators on the Family Islands – many believe a ventilator could have helped to save Kim Johnson Rolle’s life – Dr. Sands stated, “It’s very important to understand that a ventilator in the wrong hands is a dangerous tool.”  He further explained, “If you put a breathing tube in somebody’s airway, COVID – which is ordinarily spread through droplets – will become aerosolized and you have the (possibility) of infecting or contaminating everybody in the room.”  With this explanation, Sands effectively revealed that Bimini was not ready to handle a critical case, let alone an outbreak of the virus. He also admitted that in addition to Bimini, Acklins, Crooked Island, Long Island and others do not have intensive care units and were not likely to have them for the foreseeable future. Pretty much, intensive care support to critical patients is only available on Grand Bahama and New Providence.  Dr. Sands said health officials were working out ways to hasten the process where Family Island residents who are in need of medical attention can be transported to Nassau in a timely manner.  As it stands, health care facilities on the family islands remain as they were and health care providers still lack the necessary training to deal with critically ill patients suspected of having COVID-19. Testing has, however, been expanded to a few of those islands and air ambulances are now on standby, equipped with the very necessary isolation units.

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