Jamaica's surging COVID crisis just got help: US donates field hospital

©Miami Herald

With concerns growing in Jamaica that more people will require hospitalizations amid a worrying surge in coronavirus cases, the Caribbean nation is getting help from the U.S. Southern Command.

Adm. Craig Faller, head of the U.S. Southern Command, headquartered in Doral, Florida, arrived in Kingston Thursday to officially hand over a large mobile field hospital for COVID-19 patients. The $753,000 hospital, which can care for 70 patients, will add to Jamaica’s 350-COVID-19 bed capacity.

Purchased by Southcom with humanitarian funds, it was transported to the island last week, ahead of Faller’s visit, on board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. Faller last visited Jamaica in November during a three-nation Caribbean tour that included Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic.

“I’m very proud that we were able to, from a question just a couple of months ago, respond, find the source of the resources to procure it, find a vendor in the United States, put it all together and package it,” Faller told The Miami Herald.

The request for a temporary hospital, he said, came from Jamaican Defense Force leader Lt. Gen. Rocky Ricardo Meade, whom Faller holds in high regard. When Meade made the request back in July, Jamaica wasn’t yet seeing the sharp increase in infections or deaths that it’s currently experiencing. It also had not yet set a record in hospitalized patients.

That occurred last month when the Ministry of Health reported there were a record 35 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19 — the highest count to date — and before Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared that Jamaica had entered the community transmission phase of the virus. That happened earlier this month when the country began to see an ever bugger increase in the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, as well as those testing positive.

“By the very nature of community transmission it means the virus could affect anyone, anywhere at any particular point in time,” Minister of Health and Wellness Christopher Tufton said. “It means that we must always assume that the person we’re interacting with could potentially be a carrier of the virus.”

On Wednesday, Jamaica reported 126 additional positive cases in a 24-hour period, bringing its total number of cases to 5,395. Of that number, 3,792 are active; 76 people have died.

Tufton said currently about a third, or 119, of the designated COVID-19 beds are in use by individuals with the disease, seven of whom are critically ill. The U.S. donation, which will be located at National Chest Hospital in Kingston, “will assist as we prepare to deal with any possibility of increased demand.”

“It does come with some equipment. We will add some additional equipment and of course the personnel to man that facility,” Tufton said.

Tufton said a second 40-bed tent hospital is also currently being negotiated with a Canadian company with the support of the Canadian government. “We hope to have the arrival of that facility in short order.”

In addition, the government is planning to build two additional 36-bed facilities, which all together will add more than 100 additional beds for individuals suffering from COVID-19 and requiring hospital care.

While the tent hospital is Jamaica’s first, Faller said similar donations have been made to the Dominican Republic, which has registered more COVID-19 infections than the entire English-speaking Caribbean combined, and Costa Rica, which is also seeing a sharp increase in infections.

Overall, the U.S. government has provided Jamaica with $2 million in foreign assistance funding to support the country’s ongoing response to COVID-19, and efforts to prevent and control infectious diseases. This includes $86,000 worth of hand-held thermometers and patient beds funded by Southcom.

The financial support for nations in the Caribbean and Latin America comes on the heels of criticism early on during the pandemic when regional governments complained that the U.S. was blocking them from accessing personal protective equipment, testing and other COVID-19 fighting measures in the U.S. market. As a result many countries turned to China, which Faller said is using the pandemic and its form of healthcare diplomacy as an opportunity to “leverage in this hemisphere.”

“The United States has quietly stepped up in a big way to help our partners,” Faller said, adding that the amount in U.S. pledges and deliveries to partners in the region far exceeds “any competitor nation, no matter what we’ve read. (But) to be fair here, there is no competition here; we’re all trying to help.”

Within Southcom, the dollar amount of the contributions, he said, is about $17 million spread out across 28 nations, and includes the distribution of hand sanitizers, masks and the tent hospitals. The only nations that they have not touched: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

“The three glaring examples of non-democracies here in the hemisphere,” Faller said. “I think the response has been rapid and we’re meeting need.”

With COVID-19 affecting economies, healthcare systems and food access, the security challenges in the region will be huge, said Faller, who plans to raise the issue of China’s reach in his meetings with Jamaican officials during the day visit.

“That’s why we have to continue to really focus on this, find where the needs are and deliver,” he added.

Faller said that from the onset of the global pandemic, Southcom asked its partners in the region what their needs are and created a system to look at needs on a daily basis and how the virus was spreading. He has also personally kept in touch with military counterparts like Meade in Jamaica.

The limited funding initially meant that assistance meant things that could be done quickly. But after the U.S. Secretary of Defense increased the budget, Faller said, they were able to turn around contracts in days.

“As the pandemic progressed, it became clear that a lot of our partners had critical needs, much like we saw here in the U.S.” Faller said. “So we have been able to supply hospital tents.”

Faller said Thursday’s visit to Jamaica is a demonstration on his part of the respect for the Jamaica Defense Force and his relationship with Meade, its leader. The country is also a strategic partner that has stepped up in responding to disasters in the region.

“They’re a leader,” Faller said.

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©2020 Miami Herald