2 years of COVID-19: Early treatment, vaccines saved a lot of lives – Health Minister

Two years have now elapsed since the COVID-19 pandemic created several waves in the world, leaving many countries – including Guyana – vulnerable after it struck, and health systems compromised.
With learning curves and a proactive approach from authorities to protect the population with treatment and vaccination, Health Minister Dr Frank Anthony believes a lot of lives were saved.
“I think when you compare where we were two years ago: not knowing much about the disease, not having proper diagnostic tests to be able to test for the disease, not having treatment, not having beds; it is a totally different scenario now, where we have lots of capacity, people who have been trained, and we have been working at this over the last two years. We have gained a lot of experience,” Dr Anthony has expressed.
On Friday, he underscored that Guyana was among the frontline countries to source antiviral medications such as Remdesivir and Baricitinib to interrupt the progression of the virus in persons who were already infected. This has created significant enablement in ensuring higher recoveries.
“We were one of the early adaptors of treatment because, initially, (nothing) specific was available for persons once they got infected with COVID. Being a viral disease, we know you can interrupt the life cycle of the virus, and when the antiviral medication Remdesivir came on the market, we were one of those countries that adopted it quite easily. We continue to do so.
“Because we were early adaptors (of) these types of treatment, we would have saved a lot of lives,” he explained.
Of the 63,127 persons who had contracted the novel coronavirus in Guyana, 61,684 have recovered, while 1024 have succumbed. This, according to the Health Minister, translates to exceptional statistics in COVID management.
To protect those who were uninfected or recovered, the sourcing of vaccination became a competitive game for countries. The country recorded its first case of the virus on March 11, 2020, but it was also the date when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Just under one year after, vaccination was made available.
Guyana was also ahead of other countries in the region with its early rollout of booster doses.
“Vaccination was another important area. As soon as vaccination became available, we started rolling out vaccines very early. In a lot of countries, they were recommending it just for specific populations. We started out that way, but as we started getting more vaccines and we went out on the market to buy those vaccines, we quickly lowered the age group,” he has said.
Presently, the children and adult populations continue to be vaccinated, but according to Dr Anthony, there is always room for improvement, and areas where hesitancy can be eliminated. First-dose vaccination has accounted for 435,509 doses, or 84.9 per cent of the adult population; while second-dose vaccination has accounted for 323,605 jabs, or 64.8 per cent of the adult population.
For children aged 12 to 17, first-dose vaccination has been pegged at 33,938 jabs, or 46.5 per cent of that demographic. Second-dose vaccination has been pegged at 24,612 jabs, or 33.7 per cent of that demographic. The uptake of booster shots has been pegged at 54,195 jabs.

Building capacity
Delving deeper into the initial days of the pandemic, brought on by patient zero, the Health Minister has underscored that the health sector was not prepared for the pandemic or detection of cases. In fact, the first case was detected after the patient who was admitted to the GPHC subsequently died, and then a test was performed posthumously.
“Unfortunately, while we knew there was a new disease called COVID-19, I don’t think that the then Government had made a lot of preparation for the detection and treatment of COVID-19. With our first patient, that person came from New York to Guyana, probably was infected before, probably developed the disease while here on vacation, and then got sick.”
He added, “Nobody thought about COVID, and when that person came to the Accident and Emergency (Unit of the GPHC), doctors and nurses that came into contact (with the patient) subsequently had to be isolated… Our initial case was not detected clinically, but after the person died. They felt like they needed to test for COVID, and when they did, it came back positive.
“From then to now, obviously when we came into office, there were a number of things that we had to rectify,” he said.
When his administration took office in August, Dr Anthony recalled that the system was in shambles, with limited testing. As a result, it is unclear whether more infections and deaths related to the virus occurred at that time.
“In terms of testing, there were very few tests that were being done. In some cases, less than five PCR tests were done per region per day. That really did not give you a sense of how widespread the disease was, and how many people were infected because of the limited amount of testing. At the beginning, because of the lack of testing, and the infrastructure to test and the stringent criteria, we were excluding a lot of people who were probably positive. In terms of people dying from COVID, many of the persons who died, we didn’t know where it was from COVID or any other cause,” this health official has said.
Additionally, capacity to treat severe infections was significantly strapped, owing to there being just a few beds at the Georgetown Public Hospital that were designated for positive cases.

“We had very few ventilators in the system, and I recall in the early days when we took over, Georgetown Hospital was the main centre where people were being treated. We had probably seven beds with ventilators, and therefore, if we exceeded that number, probably persons could not get medical attention.
“Right away, we had to start not just on building capacity centrally, but we had to start working on building capacity in the regions as well,” he said.
After analysing the resources inherited, he pointed out that the Infectious Diseases Hospital was just a ‘shell,’ with zero tangible utility sources or equipment to operate. Within one month, beds and medical apparatus were ordered for the facility.
The Minister raised, “There was no water, no sewage system. Electricity was not connected. There was not a single piece of equipment: no beds, no ventilators, no nothing. We had to start working on getting that going as quickly as possible… By September, we had our first patients going into the Ocean View facility. It was a struggle at the beginning because of these challenges.”
Now ramped up testing has allowed for the National Public Health Reference Laboratory to process about 2,000 tests per day. GeneXpert machines are available at the regional level to also conduct Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests. Antigen testing has also been introduced.
Moving from 38,548 tests after capacity was boosted in 2020, this number has increased to 387,266 in 2021. Up to February 2022, the figures showed 116,048 tests. This accounts for a surplus of 548,000 tests to date.
There is a bed capacity of 385 reserved for coronavirus patients in the system, of which 195 are at the specialised COVID facility at Liliendaal.
“It shows where we came from to where we are today…because we have ramped up this capacity so quickly (that) at no time was our system overwhelmed with cases. We always had enough beds to treat our patients, and if they needed ventilators, we had ventilators for these patients,” Dr Anthony commented.
Looking into the next months ahead, it was noted that capacity would be needed to access post-COVID syndrome and treatment for such.

New infections
On Friday, only 20 new infections surfaced, and therefore this moved the number of confirmed cases to 63,127. This accounted for one case in Region Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam), five in Region Three (Essequibo Islands-West Demerara); eight in Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica); three in Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne) and three in Region Nine (Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo).
Meanwhile, five patients are in the Infectious Diseases Hospital, nine are in institutional isolation, 199 are in home isolation, and 11 are in institutional quarantine.
To date, 29,067 males and 34,060 females have been infected.