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Gib virus data hints at positive trends, but officials warn worst yet to come

Early analysis of statistical data collected by the Gibraltar Health Authority suggests the rate of infection in the community may be slowing thanks to lockdown measures, the Gibraltar Government said on Sunday, even as it warned the worst was still to come and cautioned against complacency.

There were three new cases confirmed on Sunday, bringing the total up to 102 from 98 on Saturday and 95 on Friday. Of the positive cases, 50 are currently active and 52 have recovered.

The data was released as Dr John Cortes, the Minister for Public Health, also confirmed that 344 random tests had now been taken in the community in parallel to the targeted testing on people with symptoms.

The results of 114 of those random swabs have now been returned to the GHA, with only one positive.

Dr Cortes said it was too early to draw any firm conclusions from the data, which will be analysed in detail locally by a research group of scientists once all the results are returned.

But he said it was encouraging that, for now at least, the number people recovered from Covid-19 in Gibraltar exceeded the number of active cases.

He also said the data suggested the rate of infection locally “seems to be dropping”, with the slowdown coinciding with lockdown measures.

But repeatedly during the 4pm press conference on Sunday, both Dr Cortes and Dr Sohail Bhatti, the Director of Public Health, underlined the need for caution in interpreting the data, stressing that early positive signs should “not be a trigger for complacency”.

“If the strategy is working, that is the reason to keep going at it,” Dr Cortes said, adding: “The virus lurks in the community.”

“It is lurking, it is there, awaiting its opportunity to infect, to hurt, and to kill."

“We will still have cases and we will have deaths, we can’t escape that reality.”

Part of the challenge for health officials here is that Gibraltar’s main contact with other countries is with Spain, where the virus has so far claimed 12,418 lives and pushed healthcare services to breaking point, and the UK, where 3,605 have died from Covid-19 and the number of cases is rising sharply.

Dr Bhatti said that even if the data in Gibraltar was encouraging - he put it down to stringent planning and “Gibraltarian luck” - the Rock remained in a precarious situation.

“We’re like a dry bush sitting next to two raging forest fires,” he said.

“Even if we suppress it, all it takes is a spark to come across.”

Dr Bhatti said that the focus was on slowing the rate of infection while preparing for the worst and working to understand the risk and mitigate it.

He said that if Gibraltar’s data was extrapolated to enable comparisons with larger countries, it had carried out the equivalent of 37,000 tests per million inhabitants, placing it near the top of the global list for scale of sampling.

But as he has done repeatedly on previous occasions, he said the tests currently available only detected active cases of Covid-19 and offered no indication as to who had already had the virus or who would get it next.

The GHA is working to procure an antibody test that will provide health officials with data about immune people in the community, but he said there was no reliable test at present.

For now then, the focus will remain on targeted swabbing of people with symptoms, alongside the random sampling being carried out as part of the research project.

Dr Bhatti also said that anyone who dies from now on will also be swabbed for Covid-19, even of they had not suffered any symptoms and the death was related to other medical conditions.

One important development announced on Sunday is that the GHA has now procured five-minute tests that will enable a fast turnaround in results and provide a real-time snapshot of how the number of active cases.

The GHA has procured “tens of thousands” of these tests thanks to the efforts of Gibraltarian Consultant Microbiologist, Dr Nick Cortes.

It will be a few days before those tests put into use, however.

Planning is also underway to consider how Gibraltar might be released from the lockdown measures in the coming weeks and months.

This is still work in progress and will depend on the progress of the virus in the short term, with no timescale envisaged at present.

Dr Cortes said that depending on how the coming weeks unfold, some aspects of normality will “gradually come back” while others “may not come back as we are used to them”.

But he stressed than in any event, “it’s early days yet”.

Both he ad Dr Bhatti added that for now, the most important step was to adhere to the lockdown rules and stay indoors except for essential outings.

The government will review rules allowing access to beaches if these are abused once the weather improved in the coming days, and had not ruled out closing them off altogether to public access.

“We are trying to slow the spread, we can’t stop it,” Dr Bhatti said.

“[Otherwise] as soon as people get out and they are released [from lockdown], it will spread like wildfire.”

“People will die in this epidemic,” he added

“I wish that wasn’t true, but it will come.”

Dr Bhatti urged people to face their mortality and make their peace with their loved ones, even while stressing that for most people, Covid-19 will be little more than a bad flu or cold.

Dr Cortes also highlighted the work down by the GHA and other essential services to prepare Gibraltar for the word-case scenario.

According to Dr Cortes, the government’s UK visiting health expert, Professor Ian Cumming, who until recently was the chief executive of Health Education England and is now chair of West Midlands Ambulance Service and the Foreign Office’s senior responsible officer for the UK Overseas Territories Programme in Public Health England , told him Gibraltar was “far better prepared” than the UK.

“We are in danger still, but we are ready,” Dr Cortes said, underlining multi-agency efforts that have enabled the GHA to have over 300 beds available and 55 ventilators if needed.

“The virus can be kept at bay but only if we obey the rules,” he added.

“In this manner, we can all help save lives.”

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