Keeping Calm and Carrying on: Preparing for COVID-19 in Jamaica

person washing his hand

As of March 9, 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 109,577 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. So far Jamaica has no confirmed cases but it is likely that we will get our first case very soon. The news headlines and information circulating on social media are frightening. Although fear and anxiety can be normal when facing a new disease with many unknowns, empowerment comes from realising we can control our response and not simply react from a place of fear and anxiety. A plan of action based on reliable information and rational thinking is one way to keep calm and carry on amidst novel coronavirus fears.

As a healthcare provider, part of my job is to help to inform and empower my patients as well as the wider community that we all live in. An informed public armed with a rational plan of action reduces everybody’s risk of falling prey to COVID-19. Although this information is mainly aimed at my Jamaican community, much of the information and advice is applicable to other communities as well. My goal is to provide some basic facts about the disease and some practical advice based on these facts, which can help us all to keep calm and carry on in trying times.

What is COVID-19?

In December 2019, doctors in China identified a flu-like illness that was being caused by a previously unknown germ. This germ was later identified as a virus from the coronavirus family, which includes 4 viruses that cause the common cold, as well as those that caused SARS and MERS outbreaks in the past. The newly identified virus had not previously caused infections in humans. Initially called novel coronavirus it now carries the official name SARS-CoV-2. The disease it causes is called COVID-19.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The most common symptoms:

  • fever

  • dry cough

  • shortness of breath

  • tiredness

Other symptoms:

  • runny nose

  • sore throat

  • headache

  • diarrhoea

Infected persons can have no symptoms at all. The symptoms can appear as early as 1 day or as late as 14 days after exposure to the virus.

How do you catch COVID-19?

The virus is spread by contact with the visible and invisible droplets that come out of an infected person’s mouth or nose as they cough, sneeze, talk or breathe forcefully. These droplets can land on surfaces by direct deposit. They can also be deposited on the hand, used to cover the mouth while coughing, and indirectly deposited on surfaces touched by the contaminated hand. When a well person touches the contaminated surfaces with their hands, and then touches their eyes, mouth or nose, the virus enters a new victim. If you stand close enough (less than 6 feet) to be showered by the droplets leaving an infected person, you can inhale the virus into your body.

How serious is COVID-19?

Based on the worldwide numbers so far, the vast majority (about 98%) of people who get this illness will recover completely. Only 2% will die from it, and about 20% will need hospital treatment. For comparison, about 0.2% of people infected with influenza will die from it. The people most at risk for severe disease and/or death are those over 60 years, and those with underlying heart or lung disease. So containing the spread of the disease is important to protect this vulnerable population.

This coronavirus is spreading easily for a number of reasons. Firstly, since humans worldwide are being exposed for the first time, we have no immunity to it. Secondly, people can be infected without showing symptoms, and therefore unknowingly spread it to others. Thirdly, the easy availability of air travel means that the virus can cross continents and oceans with ease in the bodies of travelling humans.

All of this means that lots of people can get sick at the same time, resulting in a greatly increased demand on our already overburdened health care facilities. If the disease spreads widely, even though only 20% of affected people are likely to need hospital care, our existing health facilities will not be able to cope with the increased demand. Italy, a First World country with an ICU capacity of 850 beds in the affected region, is now reporting that their hospitals will be overwhelmed if the rate of spread is not contained. The lesson for us in Jamaica is that we have to contain the spread of COVID-19 as soon as it arrives on our shores.

Additionally, if lots of people get sick at the same time, they all will be unable to work, because of either illness itself or the isolation required to prevent it spreading to others. So if COVID-19 becomes widespread in Jamaica, although most of us will not die from the disease, all of us will be severely affected by interruptions to everyday life, work, school, and the services we take for granted. In my opinion, these economic consequences will be the most widely felt impact of Covid-19.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

A diagnosis of COVID-19 is confirmed with a laboratory test for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2.

Who gets tested?

  • Anyone with symptoms and a history of travel to affected areas or contact with known cases of infection.

  • Anyone with symptoms that cannot be explained by another disease.

  • Contacts of known cases even if they do not yet have symptoms.

The numbers quoted in the media by the WHO are for people who have tested positive for COVID-19. It is important to keep in mind that there may be people in the population who have been infected but not tested and therefore do not form part of this official statistic.

What are the preventive measures for COVID-19?

There are a number of effective measures to reduce your risk of being infected:

  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible.

  • Wash hands properly with soap and water often, and especially before touching your face, eating, and after using public transport. Use an alcohol based sanitizer ( at least 60% alcohol ) when soap and water is not available.

  • Avoid physical contact (handshakes, hugs, kisses, etc) when greeting people.

  • Avoid crowds and hand contact with publicly used surfaces (staircase railings, door handles, communal pens, water coolers, etc ) as much as possible.

  • Sanitize communal surfaces like telephones, computer keyboards, and shared office keys with rubbing alcohol daily.

  • If you have to deal with members of the public on a daily basis, position fans and vents so that they blow air away from your face as much as possible, or position yourself to achieve the same result. This helps to reduce your exposure to droplets released into the air by potentially infected people.

  • Ensure you eat properly, drink enough water (to produce pale or colourless urine), and get enough sleep (minimum 7 hours for adults, 9 hours for children). This will help your immune system to function properly.

  • There are a number of traditional non-drug ways to boost your immune system that have been shown to be helpful. Ginger (perhaps as tea), cold pressed coconut oil, and zinc (as a supplement or from dietary sources) are examples that can be easily included as part of your prevention regime.

  • Share these and other tips from reliable sources with your family, friends, co-workers and neighbours. The integrity of our defence against infection depends on every individual acting responsibly and taking sensible precautions.

What is the treatment for COVID-19?

For the majority of people who catch COVID-19, the treatment consists of isolation, rest, hydration and paracetamol to control the fever. People with severe illness will need admission to hospital. Currently there are no specific drugs or vaccines for COVID-19. A healthy immune system supported by adequate rest and nutrition will enable a full recovery. We can support that recovery with the following non-drug measures:

  • Hydrating with warm fluids like ginger chamomile and/or mint tea with a little honey.

  • Cold pressed coconut oil 1 tablespoon 3 times a day for adults.

  • Steam inhalations with just water or with added mint / thyme leaves, or eucalyptus/ Olbas oil to help with coughing.

How do we prepare for an outbreak of COVID-19 in Jamaica?

Photo by Burst on

The preparation can be addressed from two perspectives:

  • Dealing with the illness and its health impacts.

  • Dealing with the disruptions to daily activities (work, school, travelling, accessing food and household supplies).

Preparing for the health issues should include the following:

  • Stock an adequate supply of regular paracetamol: allow for at least 12 -18 tablets per adult, 6-9 tablets per child under 12, or enough liquid paracetamol to last at least 3 days.

  • Stock up on vitamin C, fluids and easy to prepare foods.

  • Acquire disposable face masks to be used by sick individuals at home to prevent spread to uninfected members of the household.

  • Identify a doctor or health facility that you can contact for guidance if you have worsening symptoms or questions about managing at home. Keep those numbers close at hand.

  • If you have an underlying condition, (asthma, COPD, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, sickle cell) see your doctor now, and find out what special precautions you may need to take if you get sick.

  • Ensure you have refills on regular prescriptions, and that you are taking your medications as instructed.

  • Identify how you would isolate sick family members especially if your household also includes older (over 60) members who may be frail.

  • Discuss with employer/coworkers/employees in advance the protocol for sick leave and working from home in the event of illness.

Preparing for the disruption to normal daily activities should include:

  • Extra supply of food, toiletries and prescription medication (similar to hurricane preparation).

  • Extra supplies of diapers, wipes and baby food if you have infants.

  • Identify child care and at home activities for children if schools close.

  • Set up online banking and bill payments.

  • Establish the means to work from home where possible, especially for people who need to take public transportation.

  • Make a plan for checking in with older and/or disabled family/neighbours/friends who live alone to ensure that they have what they need to manage.

  • Choose reliable credible sources of information and check them regularly for global and local updates.

  • Avoid subscribing to and sharing reports from unverifiable sources of doubtful credibility.

We can prepare for battle by getting the facts, understanding the potential consequences of this illness beyond the health concerns, and trying to anticipate the issues we may have to deal with. Armed with knowledge and working together we can prevent the disease from spreading uncontrollably in our country. By keeping calm, and looking out for each other we can survive the challenge of COVID-19.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s