All Virgin Islanders can sign up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting on March 1, and vaccination centers will be set up at the St. Thomas and St. Croix campuses of the University of the Virgin Islands, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. announced Monday.
More than 12,000 people have received at least a first dose of the vaccine in the Virgin Islands to date, and Bryan said the territory has set a goal of 50,000 vaccinations in an effort to reach herd immunity.
The territory is currently in Phase 2 of the rollout, which limits vaccinations to individuals age 65 and over, and public and private workers in a variety of professions that require public interaction. But in less than a week, the phased approach will end and everyone wanting to get a vaccine can call a vaccine provider or the vaccination hotline to schedule an appointment.
The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 340-777-8227, or online at vitema.vi.gov.
Bryan, who recently celebrated his 53rd birthday, also emphasized the need for Virgin Islanders to get comprehensive health screenings and preventive care, including colonoscopies. The procedure can help detect cancer before it spreads and becomes untreatable, and Bryan said everyone over 50 should have it done.
“I took care of mine, painless, you can do it too,” Bryan said.
V.I. Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said the department is currently tracking 81 active COVID cases, and there is only one COVID-19 patient hospitalized in the territory — an individual at Schneider Hospital who does not require a ventilator.
Encarnacion emphasized proper mask-wearing, and said masks should fit comfortably but snugly around the face and be made of at least two layers of fabric to help block the spread of germs. Following the announcement of a federal requirement that all travelers entering the United States must have a negative COVID-19 test, Bryan said the Tourism Department has been working to help clarify that territories, including the Virgin Islands, are not included in that requirement.
Some airlines have been telling passengers from the Virgin Islands that they must show proof of a negative test before boarding their flight, and “we’ve been working with individual airlines as they hear that,” Bryan said.
Bryan and Encarnacion encouraged frequent travelers to get an antibody test, which is valid for four months, rather than a COVID-19 test every time they fly. Antibody tests show when someone has built up an immunity to the virus either through past infection or vaccination, and Encarnacion said the ability to get a positive antibody test for easier travel is yet another reason to get vaccinated. The seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has dropped to 2.1%, and “we have managed to come this far as a team by ignoring the critics and following the data,” Bryan said. But a year after the pandemic began, “we still have to listen to the naysayers who doubt our approach to handling the spread of the pandemic. The proof is in the pudding, we know what to do, and we know when to do it.”
Bryan addressed community concern about the ongoing 4 p.m. curfew at beaches on weekends and holidays, and said many have questioned the logic of that measure while bars and restaurants are allowed to continue operating after 4 p.m. on those days.
“The simplest answer is, these establishments, all these bars and restaurants and other activities around, they have an established management. There is a structure there, a building or an edifice or whatever, and a management team that helps us control mass gatherings and wanton behavior,” Bryan said. “There are far too many beaches and places on the ocean for us with our scarce COVID team to manage all of those places and those areas.”
Bryan said it seems that many people “forget that we are in a global pandemic. Our goal is to keep you safe. Even from yourself.” The other reason bars and restaurants have been allowed to remain open is they “create livelihoods for their owners, tax dollars for the government, and perhaps most importantly, jobs for Virgin Islanders who would otherwise have problems paying their bills and providing for their families,” Bryan said.
“We are aware that this puts a social hardship on our residents. But with your help as volunteers to receive the vaccine, we can reach the goal for herd immunity and lift the curfew off of our beaches. Fifty thousand, that’s the goal.”