Update from the Minister of Health Kim Wilson
In early February 2020, prior to COVID-19 becoming a pandemic, the whole world recognized that in order to prepare for the very likely pandemic, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplies, testing regimes, and other preparations were required to fight the inevitable.
Amongst the many preparations required, the Ministry began to procure and source PPE; determine what local testing capacity was on island, and determine all other aspects required to prepare for the oncoming Pandemic. The total cost of the Ministry of Health’s fight against COVID-19 as at 17th July 2020 is approximately $5.9 million.
Many countries struggled tremendously in March and April specifically with PPE sourcing and testing capabilities, however Bermuda did not encounter significant on island challenges as it relates to PPE supplies and testing due to proactive procurement and preparedness by the Ministry. The Government of Bermuda anticipated the fast approaching need for testing materials and PPE whilst the Ministry of Health team scoured the globe, determined that our small country’s inventory of these vital weapons against this virus would rival those held by far larger countries. I speak mainly of these two items specifically as they are two of the core ammunition needed in the fight against COVID and are approximately $5.3 million or 90% of the total costs, said the Health Minister Kim Wilson.
In February an aggressive search began to identify on island testing capabilities to minimize the waiting time for results and to increase testing capacity. At that time, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), located in Trinidad, was engaged by Bermuda to complete testing but was limited to 20 test per week and the results were received in approximately 5 working days. The Ministry, therefore, engaged Helix Genetic and Scientific Solutions to provide on island testing which produced results within 24-48 hours and this was a tremendous feat for Bermuda. The ability to test locally provided a significant drop in the wait time for results.
The local testing gave the ability to do significantly more test and test on a daily basis with the most test in a day being 190 at that time. Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a branch agent under the World Health Organization (WHO), gave Bermuda kudos for the ability to get testing, validation and quality controls checks in place in record time and upon their review of the process they gave the blessings for the Helix lab to be one of the few approved COVID-19 testing lab in the region at that time.
Through the efforts of our Bermudian scientist Dr. Desiree Spriggs and her team, combined with their commitment to a level of testing standards, not previously seen on our shores, we were amongst the first of the Caribbean countries to receive this accolade. Helix was able to implement the equivalent levels of measures for COVID-19 testing as CARPHA. Dr Desiree Spriggs and her team were significantly instrumental in ensuring Bermuda’s testing regime was up and running in record time and Bermuda could combat against the virus and we are ever so thankful to them. However, since which, the access to testing has become more available and more cost effective and therefore the Helix contract was terminated with the 45 days’ notice, giving the last day of service on 14th June 2020. The total cost for the Helix contract is $481,809.
Additionally, the Ministry purchased a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine to increase the testing capacity. The machine cost $154,000 and is currently in use at the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory (MDL). MDL, managed by yet another Bermudian scientist, Dr Carika Weldon, is currently doing testing at exponential volumes, and at present averaging 500 test per day. Dr Weldon has taken the baton in the COVID-19 race and is ensuring we are a step ahead by providing testing result within hours of the collection.
Dr Weldon has provided the country a continuum of services that Bermuda will benefit from for many years to come and again, we are ever so grateful to her and her team. Testing supplies such as swabs, collection kits, tubes, pipets, reagents, collection bags and viral media have been purchased by the Ministry for approximately $386,000.
Without a doubt, the early access to testing gave Bermuda the head start it needed to counteract the pandemic and hence one of the fundamental reason why we are currently doing well in the fight against COVID-19.
Understanding the immediate and urgent need for PPE that the whole world was facing in early March, the Ministry partnered with BHB to procure supplies as BHB maintains a robust procurement system with efficiencies that currently do not exist within Government. Some of those efficiencies include a wide network of overseas vendors, a controlled payment system that provides a quicker turn around for payments, an experienced Commercial Director who manages health and medical procurement at large levels, and an inventory model for large quantities of health and medical supplies. The partnership with BHB reduced the risk of the Ministry encountering what many other countries encountered such as tendering with fake vendors and the inability to urgently pay for supplies.
In early March, it was clear that the entire country did not have sufficient PPE in preparation of the longevity and magnitude of the oncoming pandemic. The main sectors that required PPE were:
- Bermuda Hospital Board (BHB)
- The Care Homes
- The Ministry of Health front line workers
- The Essential Services such as Police, Regiment, Customs etc.
- Government employees requiring PPE
- Community Physicians
And the Public, as in early March cloth mask had not been introduced as a sufficient form of mask, so therefore at that time, medical mask were being considered for the public as well.
Supplies were purchased on the basis of ensuring Bermuda was cared for as whole and procurement proceeded in that principle. Small to large orders were made locally and overseas to prevent Bermuda from having a PPE shortage similar to the US, which had devastating consequences.
Procuring is a simple task but the logistic of getting large orders to Bermuda was a colossal task due to, to name a few; the many closures of borders around the world; adhoc regulations being implemented in many countries; lack of cargo space on the limited cargo vessels; long lead times in production of supplies due to shortages; and severe price gouging. Some specific examples of the challenges were when President Trump declared there would be no exporting of PPE products from the US to any other country.
This prohibition was not only a major setback on available options, but there instances when countries’ supplies were in transit via the US, their goods were allegedly seized. In fact, a container belonging to Bermuda with supplies was detained in the US and it took many hands on deck to assist to get it released.
Another Example was when a large order of mask was due to be delivered by Fedex and the China authorities added more PPE regulations which delayed the mask from being shipped. However, it was navigated expeditiously and we received the mask timely. Many hours of work went into mitigating these various impediments which resulted in Bermuda having PPE in time to alleviate what could have been a travesty for our country.
The Ministry created a small team to work through the logistics of getting the orders of PPE to Bermuda which included the Commercial Director at BHB, BHB staff, Ministry headquarters staff and associates in China. Some of the large orders included 610,000 surgical masks, 500,000 N95 masks, 30,000 face shields, 100,000 swabs, 500,000 pairs of gloves, 5,000 digital thermometers and 480 infrared thermometers. Other significant supplies where purchased from some of our local vendors which included but not limited to hand sanitizers and pre-empt wipes.
The country has benefited tremendously by the proactive procurement of the PPEs, which are fundamental tools in fighting COVID-19. All sectors such as BHB, the care homes, police, customs, the regiment, Ministry of Health front line workers etc. continue to source from the PPE supply stored at the Government warehouse. Additionally, with the reopening of Government at full capacity, the PPE supplies are ordered daily and the burn rate has increased due to the need by some Government employees when in particular work environment.
Due to proactive procuring, Bermuda is now well placed with the basic PPE supplies for a period approximately of 10-12 months. This period includes an anticipated second wave later in the calendar year. However, we all must be aware that most supplies are disposable and can rapidly deplete. Additionally the supply par levels are subject to change due to possible outbreaks or unexpected changes in the COVID-19 pandemic. The estimate cost for PPE is currently $4.3 million.
Other cost related to the COVID-19 fight include, cost for service providers to swab and administer the testing sights, the call centre management, the maintaining of the Government warehouse for supplies and the staff required to meet the Public Health safety requirements and demands.
I have discussed PPE, testing and other material components of fighting COVID-19, but I have saved the best for last. We can have all the PPE, test, equipment, laws and policies as tools to fight the pandemic but they can only have value if we have the right people to manage the tools, said Wilson.
I cannot express enough gratitude to all of the essential workers that have worked tirelessly and selflessly for their country. They are the backbone to this fight and have not wavered once, even at our lowest point. Many have worked through this crisis while sacrificing time with their families and loved ones to save others. Our essential workers must be saluted to the highest degree and be recognized for being the soldiers that they are, she continued.
When COVID-19 brought the world to its knees, our essential workers stood up on their feet and fought a good fight like true champions and I consider them Bermuda’s heroes. I am, and I know I speak for the entire country, tremendously grateful to the people who serve as our essential workers and put the community first and I would like to say a whole heartedly thank you, thank you and thank you for all that you have done and continue to do to keep our island of Bermuda safe!
In closing, said Kim Wilson, as Minister of Health I stand here today to express the magnitude of my appreciation and eternal gratitude to the team at the Ministry of Health. I was truly blessed to have a team worthy of the challenges thrown before them. Mr. Speaker, these women and men have risen above anything that could be reasonably asked. They have given up nights with their families, weekends with friends and many many hours of sleep. Mr. Speaker, we would not be here today, looking to rebuild our tourism product, turnaround our economy or enjoy restaurant dining, boating or even grocery shopping on a daily basis, if not for their efforts.
Leaders usually have the opportunity to carefully select their team. I am fortunate enough to be asked to lead the health team. Mr. Speaker, I can say unequivocally, the team I was blessed with has surpassed everything and anything any General going to war could ask for.
Countless individuals across Ministries, in the private sector and in our communities have all banded together in the most professional way to ensure we got ahead of this pandemic. I am humbled Mr. Speaker by what I have witnessed these past many, many, months, partially from the staff of the Ministry of Health. As we constantly say at the Ministry, the fight against COVID is a marathon not a sprint. We have been running this marathon since late January. The level of dedication and professionalism which I have witnessed has no bounds. Ministry of Health staff members continuing to work from their hospital beds, curtailing valuable family time to return to the office late at night, ignoring medical orders to take time off, forgoing their time of quiet worship to return on a Sunday morning after having only left a few short hours prior.
In closing, I am proud to be the Minister of Health and proud of all we have accomplished under the most trying of times and in the most unchartered of waters. My appreciation, respect and gratitude to everyone at the Ministry who knows no limits.