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GHA urges Christmas caution for staff as concern mounts over new Covid-19 strain

Photo by Eyleen Gomez

The Gibraltar Health Authority urged its staff on Monday to “scale back plans” for Christmas parties amid concern that illness and self-isolation requirements could “destabilise” the provision of healthcare services if there is a surge in Covid-19 cases.

The message, which stopped short of a ban on Christmas parties, was set out in an internal memo from Dr Krishna Rawal, the acting Medical Director, to GHA staff.

It came as Gibraltar, along with governments around the world, stepped up its posture amid concern about the Omicron strain of the virus, which was first identified in South Africa mid last week but has since been detected in several countries, including in Europe.

While scientists are still learning about this new variant of Covid-19, the fear is it may be more transmissible than other strains and could potentially evade existing vaccines.

The GHA memo follows the Gibraltar Government’s announcement a week ago that it was cancelling official Christmas parties, receptions and similar gatherings over the rise in Covid-19.

But while the government has issued repeated reminders of the need for caution and close adherence to public health advice, it too has held back from implementing sterner restrictions on public gatherings, conscious of the impact this could have on businesses already struggling after nearly two years of Covid-19 disruption.

Dr Rawal’s memo, while leaving room for individual decisions, left little doubt as to its underlying sentiment.

“The work undertaken by yourselves has ensured patient safety and provided stability and uniformity across the Gibraltar Health Authority to strengthen the health of people in our community and the providers who care for them,” Dr Rawal said in the memo, a copy which was seen by this newspaper.

“When our health care staff cannot work because of illness or exposure to Covid-19, the strain on our health care system becomes more severe and further limits patients’ access to safe and essential care.”

“As actively demonstrated, we know that everyone working in health care wants to do the best to keep their patients and colleagues safe, therefore, we are asking staff to exercise caution over the Christmas period and scale back plans for Christmas parties.”

“Ward and department group Christmas parties could result in the spread and transmission of the Covid virus amongst a large number of health care staff and destabilise our health care delivery, compromising safety for anyone seeking care and placing additional strain on colleagues as staff members are forced to enter isolation.”

On Friday and Saturday, Gibraltar updated its red list of countries for travel to the Rock, including a number of African countries after the new strain was first detected in the region.

In line with the UK Government, Gibraltar added several countries to the red list of countries for travel to Gibraltar, including Botswana; Eswatini; Lesotho; Namibia; South Africa; Angola; Malawi; Mozambique; Zambia; and Zimbabwe.

The UK tightened its own measures after two cases of the Omicron strain were detected over the weekend, with mask-wearing made compulsory in shops and public transport on Tuesday under plans to combat the new variant of coronavirus.

Passengers arriving in the UK have been told that from 4am on Tuesday they will have to take a PCR test for Covid-19, with the expectation they will have to self-isolate until they test negative.

All contacts with a suspected case of Omicron will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status, amid concerns existing jabs will be less effective against the strain that is believed to spread rapidly.

Gibraltar is also following the UK’s lead with similar steps, although compulsory use of masks in shops and public transport was already in place on the Rock.

There are currently no cases of the Omicron strain detected in Gibraltar.

But the Director of Public Health, Dr Helen Carter, has advised that if positive cases of the new variant do occur on the Rock, their close contacts will be required to isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status.

She described this as “a prudent measure that will be kept under review.”

All of these measures are in addition to the continued requirement for testing of all arrivals at Gibraltar airport.

Additionally, persons residing in or visiting Gibraltar who arrive via any of the other regional airports around Gibraltar from red listed countries must also submit to testing.

“We all want to see our lives return to normal, but we cannot throw caution to the wind because we are fatigued by the virus,” said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo at the weekend.

“We must continue to adhere to the rules and use our common sense now that the Omicron strain has been detected in the UK and elsewhere.”

On Monday, the World Health Organisation said the Omicron variant is likely to spread internationally, posing a "very high" global risk where Covid-19 surges could have "severe consequences" in some areas.

The U.N. agency, in technical advice to its 194 member states, urged them to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and to "ensure mitigation plans are in place" to maintain essential health services.

"Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic," the WHO said.

"The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high."

Further research is needed to better understand Omicron's potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, it said, adding that more data was expected in coming weeks.

"Covid-19 cases and infections are expected in vaccinated persons, albeit in a small and predictable proportion,” it added.

The GHA continues its booster campaign and is currently offering appointments for boosters to those in their 40s.

Vaccines also continue to be offered to those in the 12-15 age category who have been unable to take it before.

According to No.6 Convent Place, Gibraltar currently has “the highest rate of boosters administered per capita” than anywhere else in the world.

As of Monday - when 24 new cases were detected in Gibraltar, bringing the total number of active cases to 380 – Gibraltar had administered 16,778 booster jabs of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, delivered to the Rock by the UK on RAF flights.

The government pointed to some positive data as a result of Gibraltar’s vaccination program, saying there were “very low numbers” of cases in the older age groups who received the booster more than two weeks ago, compared to the numbers of cases in younger age groups who have not yet received a booster.

It said the Pfizer/BioNTech booster was “94% effective after 14 days”, underscoring the importance of the booster jab by pointing to studies that showed immunity after vaccination decreased over time.

It said the local increase of Covid-19 cases among double vaccinated individuals was likely a result of this.

But the vaccine is also working well at preventing the worst consequences of Covid-19, including severe illness and hospitalisations that risked overwhelming healthcare services.

As of Monday, despite the steady daily double-digit caseload, there were just three people in the Covid-19 ward at St Bernard’s Hospital and none in the critical care unit.

Likewise vaccinated individuals who catch Covid-19 appear to have “a much lower viral load” and are thus less likely to pass it on to others.

The message, as in previous days, was for eligible people to take up the offer of a booster as soon as they can.

The Minister for Health, Samantha Sacramento, said: “Don’t let Covid-19 spoil your Christmas.”

“Although it is still protecting against the worst effects of the disease, the immunity against Covid that the first doses of the vaccine provided throughout the summer is now wearing off and it is important to get a booster to keep immunity levels up.”

“Please accept a booster when it is offered to you as this will be the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones this festive season.”

The government noted that other countries where the level of vaccination was lower – or where vaccines were not widely available – were experiencing more critical care admissions and more deaths.

“In Gibraltar, the vaccines are protecting us against the worst effects of Covid-19 and a booster is important to keep this immunity up,” No.6 Convent Place reiterated in a statement.

“Vaccination is particularly important for those who are vulnerable and at higher risk of suffering the worst outcomes of Covid-19.”

“It takes at least two weeks following vaccination to see the necessary changes to our immune systems.”

“Therefore, getting vaccinated early on in the winter season will ensure that as a community we have the best coverage.”

To register for vaccination please email Covid19@gha.gi or register at http://www.gha.gi/pfizerbooster/

Anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 should note they will need to wait some time before they can receive a vaccine.

Children aged 12-15 who have tested positive need to wait 12 weeks. All other eligible ages need to wait 28 days from the date of onset of symptoms or receipt of a positive Covid-19 test result.

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