An unprecedented crisis is how Jamaica’s minister of health, Dr. Christopher Tufton is the island’s current spike in COVID-19 cases.
Jamaica has experienced spikes in the virus in the past but with limited bed space at hospitals and not enough staff to care for the increase in sick patients, the current wave is on the brink of overwhelming the island’s healthcare sector.
In the last week alone, the country has seen almost 3,000 new cases of COVID-19, with hospitalizations moving from 245 to 270. Dr. Tufton said that some 13 of 22 hospitals on the island have reached or are close to the max occupancy level for their isolation capacity.
The ministry of health and wellness has assured the population that the government is working on increasing the bed capacity on the island. Four field hospitals will be set in short order, according to Dr. Tufton, and existing wards at hospitals are being converted into COVID-19 wards.
But the increase in bed space poses another problem for the sector. Who will work there?
Dr. Tufton noted that staffing is now more of a challenge than ever, because many of the island’s healthcare professionals, particularly nurses, have left the island to find better opportunities across the diaspora.
The health minister said the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) has been particularly hard-hit.
“I enquired about the nursing shortage they have and one of the reasons given for the shortage was that between January of this year to date, that institution has lost some 42 public health nurses working there who have migrated to other jurisdictions based on more attractive offers.
“We don’t have a policy to restrict; labour is free to move but you can imagine it has placed significant additional strain on the UHWI and across the board, generally speaking,” the health minister noted.
Earlier this week, this same hospital had advised the public and other facilities that they would have to begin calling ahead of time to request transfers. The hospital has limited capacity to facilitate emergencies.
Other major hospitals on the island are also facing a similar issue. According to the Jamaica Gleaner, Cornwall Regional Hospital has received a 100% COVID-19 bed capacity, Noel Holmes Hospital is at 95%, UHWI at 100%; and Kingston Public Hospital, National Chest Hospital and Spanish Town Hospital all at high numbers.
“They have to stay on stretchers and wheelchairs until we can find beds for them,” an official said of Cornwall.
The current breakdown of the healthcare system was a predictable one. It is now a tradition for the island’s recently-graduated nurses to leave the island, seeking jobs elsewhere. But the increase in “brain drain” during a pandemic, coupled with lax safety measures and COVID-19 fatigue among the population can only result in a public health disaster.
The medical association of Jamaica has urged to government to consider a lockdown to stem the increase in COVID-19 cases.