In a move that it says based on science and trends with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 the PACT administration has shifted Cayman into Phase 5, the final level of its reopening plan.
Changes to the travel and arrival protocols and quarantine durations underpin the transition to what indicates a full reopening of the borders and economic activity - except for cruise travel at this stage.
The decision comes despite little change in the rate of infections from the highly contagious but comparatively less severe variant. At the time of Thursday's announcement, there were 17 people hospitalised with varying levels of illness from the disease including the Hon. Minister for Education Juliana O’Connor-Connolly.
A question by Caymanian Times publisher Ralph Lewis addressing the timing of the move to Phase 5 at a time when the COVID-19 situation remains acute was referred to the Interim Chief Medical Officer Dr Autilia Newton who underscored that the decision was based on medical science and current trends with the Omicron virus.
“Omicron is in Cayman like it is everywhere. And what it does because it spreads better than the previous strain Delta, you do see this very high spike of cases. So that's nothing unusual. We were expecting to see that ” she explained.
One of the key factors in the reopening plan is the change to the quarantine protocols.
According to the updated regulations, isolation measures will decrease from 10 days to seven days for all securely verified passengers who are travelling from a country with less than 60% vaccination rates. Quarantine for all unvaccinated travellers is also reduced from 14 days to 10 days. Travellers in quarantine may exit via a certified LFT test and not a PCR test after being contacted by Travel Cayman and vaccinated occupants of a residence where a traveller is allowed to quarantine will not be required to quarantine.
It also stipulates that all children, Caymanians, residents or visitors, arriving as travellers, will now take on the vaccination status of the adult they are travelling with, resulting in no need to quarantine for the majority of travellers. The children of unvaccinated parents will now only be required to quarantine for 10 days instead of 14.
Interim CMO Dr Newton said the change in regulations and scaling down of restrictions to activate Phase 5 are scientifically based.
“What we have done in reducing the duration of the quarantine is based on science. And this is based also on the fact that many other countries have done exactly the same thing. So we know that the person is highly infectious, one or two days before symptoms that and then two, three days after the symptoms are static. So the vast majority of people by seven days from the day one symptoms, they are no longer contagious.”
She also outlined that, “on top of that, we know also that we are testing them so that we are sure that when we release them in the community, they are not infectious. So the measures are not being had not been taken lightly or because we weren't thinking that it was a good idea or anything like that. They are based on evidence and information. Which is available at the international level.”
In its new weekly reporting format on the extent of COVID in Cayman, the Health Services Authority(HSA) shows a total of 3,967 active cases with an average of 314 new cases per day between January 9th and 15th. Of the total cases, 1,361 are new Omicron cases confirmed during that period.
There was still no indication of the number of people currently in isolation although that was previously regularly included in the daily updates. Towards the end of last year over 4,000 people were isolating at one stage with the resulting concern over staff shortages and the wider implications for the economy.
For his part Hon. Premier Wayne Panton, though optimistic in response to a question about the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, remained philosophical.
“It’s hard to say. It depends on what you mean by light at the end of the tunnel. Now, we think that we are going to have to continue managing COVID going forward for some time, but without a crystal ball it's impossible to say when that may be.”
Mr Panton however feels that the success of the vaccination programme to date is a key element. Cayman’s vaccination rates remain among the highest in the world but have recently stalled at 81 per cent for first doses, 83 per cent for second and 23 per cent for boosters. Officials continue to urge the unvaccinated to get their doses.
“I think our experience has indicated to us that what we have achieved in terms of vaccination rate, has put us in a very strong position to minimise our impact on our health services,” The Premier stated.
“We want to continue to monitor that very carefully. But at this point, I think given the changes that we have made, life should be getting better and we are learning to live more effectively. I think, with the current scenario, hopefully, we don't have the introduction of any other variants that that throw us any sort of curveballs, but that's always possible. I think we're learning to live with this a bit better. I think the impacts are going to reduce. So in that sense, yes, there is. There is some light at the end of the tunnel. But is it going to go away anytime soon? I don't think so.”
Premier Panton expanded on his response to the issue raised by Caymanian Times publisher Ralph Lewis by pointing to the expectations for a turnaround in the economy, especially the tourism sector.
“We are in a position now given the changes we have implemented that we will have a much better potential outcome in terms of the continued improvement in our tourism industry. So overall from an economic perspective, from a social perspective, from a business perspective, things should be improving. But we still have to manage this carefully and make sure that we keep an eye on the health of our people and the ability of our health services to serve their needs.”