The V.I. Health Department issued a dire warning on Friday that the territory is still neck-deep in the coronavirus, as recent cases show community-acquired infections and a ferry passenger who may have unknowingly spread the virus while traveling.
According to Territorial Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis, three positive cases of COVID-19 were reported in the last two weeks: the first on June 9 in St. Croix, and the other two on June 14 and Thursday in St. John.
While the June 14 case was deemed travel-related, the St. Croix case and Thursday’s case on St. John were found to be community-acquired, meaning they couldn’t be linked to any outside travel activity.
“That means we do not know exactly where these two individuals got it from,” Ellis said. “This also means that there are probably more cases out in the community that are going undetected, either individuals without symptoms or individuals with mild symptoms who are not calling the hotline to get tested.”
Worse still, the St. John case apparently boarded a 7 a.m. ferry from St. John to St. Thomas on the day the individual tested positive.
Ellis told The Daily News that while health officials do not employ any screening measures at the ferry docks, the passenger had only been experiencing mild body aches and no fever, meaning any screening “would not have caught this.”
Even so, Ellis said the Health Department notified the ferry, which, in turn, alerted its 7 a.m. passengers on Friday that anybody who traveled the same time the day prior should monitor their symptoms for the next 14 days, starting from Thursday.
“The likelihood of transmission on the ferry from this person is rare as they were using a mask,” Ellis said. “However, out of an abundance of caution we can test anyone starting Monday. We are not recommending testing starting [Friday] because it takes more than 24 hours for the virus to replicate in your body to detectable levels.”
Anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, chills, muscle aches or cough; or who wishes to report a suspected case, should call the Health Department’s Epidemiology Division at 340-712-6299 for St. Croix or 340-776-1519 for St. Thomas and St. John.
The prospect of more undetected cases in the community is likely sobering news for a territory already easing its restrictions and opening its doors to visitors.
Already, many in the community appear to be pushing back against guidelines set forth by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., with beachgoers crowding into bars with no masks or credence to social distancing; and restaurateurs and environmental groups balking at disposable tableware.
Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, who appeared alongside Ellis at a news conference Friday, urged the public to be more vigilant than ever and report violations of face masks by calling 340-713-3522 or 340-714-3522.
As for single-use tableware at restaurants, which will be required starting Monday, Encarnacion urged the public to “bear with us.”
“The most important thing is human lives and we’re doing our best to adhere to guidance given and adjust as we can,” she said.
Encarnacion recommended environmentally friendly disposables and reminded the public that this is “not a permanent solution.”
“This is a new virus and we are continually learning new things about the virus,” she said. “One of those things is how long it can survive on surfaces and what the risk of disposables is versus washing. We are erring at this time on the side of caution and the side of saving lives.”
To date, there have been 74 positive cases of COVID-19 in the territory — of which, 39 were reported on St. Thomas; 31 on St. Croix; and four on St. John.