Bula Vinaka. 

As of 8am this morning, we have confirmed 274 new cases of COVID-19. Following 74 new recoveries since yesterday, there are now 3,503 active cases in the country. After coming into contact with a positive patient, I am again under quarantine orders so we’ll be taking questions from the media today over zoom. 

We have a map on the Fijian Government Facebook page and the Ministry of Health and Medical Services website that shows the locations of our areas of interest which I encourage everyone to view. As you will see from the online map we are now in a situation of community transmission where there are cases throughout the Central Division. As we’ve made clear throughout the week, our cases are climbing and we are expecting that the daily case average will continue to rise, including an increase in individuals suffering severe COVID-19. 

We also have a new area of concern in Rifle Range, Lautoka following a cluster of new cases stemming from a birthday party with upwards of 14 people in attendance from various locations in Lautoka.

Not only does this event show a blatant disregard for our COVID-19 safety measures, it also troubles me that families would recklessly threaten the health of their own family members and the broader community, especially those members of the family and community who are most vulnerable. Any large gathering of family may be the last time you see your grandparents or another loved one because they could easily be infected by this highly-transmissible variant, develop a severe disease, and lose their lives. Don’t forget –– it’s not only you and your family that suffer these consequences. The entire community must now go under strict containment protocols. And  when someone in attendance at an illegal gathering inevitably gets sick and ends up in the hospital, it is the duty of our doctors and nurses to treat them, and we will. But that preventable case of COVID-19 strains our healthcare system, making it more difficult for others to be treated. So on behalf of those who are most at risk and our team working on the front lines, please follow our instructions. If you miss your family, pick up the phone and call your loved ones; any birthday parties can wait until next year. 

We have no new deaths to report today. During this outbreak, tragically three deaths have occurred before our medical teams had the opportunity to offer treatment. One patient died at home. Two others were declared dead on arrival at the hospital. 

It is possible for the virus to take hold very quickly and for symptoms to appear and escalate in a matter of hours. But often, the timeline is more gradual, as symptoms become visible well before severe disease develops -- often many days before. So I am urging members of the public, if you feel any flu-like symptoms or you know someone who is experiencing any flu-like symptoms, please visit your nearest screening clinic, now. If you have a cough, runny nose, extreme tiredness, a fever, if you have lost your sense of taste or smell or suspect you may have COVID-19 –– report to your nearest screening clinic, now. Time is critical, and you cannot afford to waste a precious second that could allow for the virus to spread to others or for you to receive early treatment. The doctors I lead have trained our whole careers to care for you. Please give us that chance. 

Our overriding focus has always been on preventing cases of severe disease and saving lives. Now that the terms of this outbreak have changed, so must our tactics –– but our mission is the same. Our highest priority is to provide life-saving care to those Fijians who are most at risk of  becoming severely sick, requiring hospitalisation and dying. Anyone can experience severe COVID-19, however some people are more at risk, including those over the age of 60 and those with an existing medical condition, like hypertension, diabetes, heart or lung disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer or those who are obese or overweight. So when we ask the public to be alert for danger signs of severe COVID-19, we ask you to pay particularly close attention and care to our most vulnerable Fijians. From an operational standpoint, we at the Ministry will be doing the same. Our top priority is on preventing severe disease and death, and that means reaching and treating the most vulnerable patients as quickly as we can. 

Most people who contract COVID-19 will only have mild symptoms before making a full recovery.  Of the more than 2,000 Fijians in isolation and quarantine facilities and more than 1,000 in home isolation, we expect most to mount full recoveries. However over the next few weeks, as case numbers increase, our isolation capacity will be significantly tested. As that happens, we need to ensure that we identify and treat those who are most vulnerable to severe COVID-19. 

That is why, moving forward, our isolation facilities will be dedicated for patients who are most at risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the virus. By placing our most vulnerable in these facilities we will be able to ensure that we provide them critical treatment and closely monitor and respond if a person shows danger signs of severe COVID-19. Other patients will be asked to safely isolate themselves at home where they will be provided the guidance and resources to receive home-based care. 

For those individuals in home isolation, we will have a list of patient names paired with contact information so that we can check-in with these individuals on a daily basis over the phone to assess their medical and non-medical needs. As has been the case, they will continue to be provided with groceries and other household essentials so they can securely remain isolated within their homes. They will be told to monitor their symptoms regularly and if they develop any danger signs, will be referred immediately to the nearest hospital or health facility for treatment. If they aren’t able to transport themselves, we also have a new number –– number 165 –– which they can call for an emergency retrieval team to be dispatched to transport them to a COVID-care centre. This team is based out of ANZ Arena and they will also be charged with transporting patients with severe symptoms from isolation facilities to COVID-care centres. 

This phase of our response requires that we move personnel from the field into Ministry offices so that they can check-in with patients remotely. It saves time by allowing us to check-in regularly with more patients so that there are fewer delays in flagging a case of severe disease. 
We’ve also supplemented our internal staffing with final year medical and dental students from FNU –– and we’re grateful to these young people for stepping up to serve Fiji. 

We are also establishing an intermediate COVID-care facility at the National Gymnasium with at least 50 beds available for patients who develop severe symptoms of the virus. If need be, we have identified additional space in the area to expand the capacity of that centre if necessary. 

We are also asking that people experiencing symptoms report to screening clinics –– it is the fastest way for us to swab you, assess you, and enter you into insolation if necessary. 

We had earlier announced COVID-safe pathways for repatriation for Fijians on Viti Levu seeking to return to Vanua Levu and maritime areas. We have some individuals in quarantine awaiting transport to their homes once they are cleared. However, we are pausing new applications to the repatriation programme until we have more quarantine spaces available. In the near-term, we need to keep those rooms open for COVID-positive patients as part of our containment programme on Viti Levu. 

Ladies and gentlemen, as I’ve said before, this virus arrives in waves. We expect the next wave will arrive in four to five days from now and we expect it will be the most severe yet. While the indicators tell us to expect more fatalities in the coming weeks, the science and the experience of other nations tell us that many thousands of lives can still be saved. The science behind how this virus spreads tells us that masks, physical distance, and handwashing, can work together to slow the spread. The science behind vaccines tells us this protection works extremely well against this variant. And our progress in protecting Fijians through vaccines shows us that we are well on our way back to a version of normalcy. 

Our vaccine teams have been fully-deployed from Monday this week. As of today, 50% of our target population –– half of the eligible adults in Fiji –– have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. We are rolling out vaccines at a rate that surpasses most high income countries. But our mission is not yet achieved. Our goal is to make a vaccine available to every eligible adult in Fiji and to have those Fijians all accept this safe and effective protection. 

I am truly puzzled by the pockets of resistance to this vaccine among some people when we know that vaccines have prevented the spread of dangerous diseases for literally centuries. This is a new vaccine because it is combatting a new disease. So every vaccine is new, yet the process of vaccination is time-tested and safe. In the last year, we had successful vaccination campaigns in this country to combat outbreaks of measles and Men-C.

There will always be lone voices sowing doubt, some citing what they believe is their own superior insight or even some revelation from God. But let me tell you what I believe. As a man of faith, I believe that I and the doctors and nurses I lead have a God-given purpose to protect life. I believe that God gave us the ability to develop treatments for disease, and this vaccine has the overwhelming endorsement of the worldwide medical, scientific--and religious--communities. It is helping countries open up around the world, and it will help us do the same. Those who refuse to vaccinate themselves do so at their own risk and at the risk of others. I cannot say it more plainly than that. And I thank the heads of the faith who are being vaccinated and encouraging others to do the same. 

Looking ahead, we are directing our efforts at educating people about how to defend themselves from contracting COVID-19 and enforcing those measures as widely as possible. We are urging people to report to screening clinics if they feel any COVID symptoms. We are implementing containment programmes in areas with widespread transmission or where we anticipate widespread transmission and we will continue to provide groceries, essential household items, masks, and information about to stop the spread within communities. And we are aiming to vaccinate every eligible adult in Fiji so that we can set ourselves towards a COVID-safe Fiji. 

If you’re at home right now wondering how you can best support us, your family, your neighbours, and the country, the best thing you can do is to stay right where you are and to continue to spend as much time as possible safely at home. You’ve heard me say it before, but if you do need to leave the home, wear your mask, keep your distance of two metres from others, wash your hands often and well, keep careFIJI installed with bluetooth switched on, and head straight home when you’ve finished your business. And when you have the chance, be vaccinated if you have not been already. Jab by jab, dose by dose, we’re beating back this outbreak. Vaccines can defeat this virus, and they can defeat this variant. So, keep the faith, we will succeed. And we will succeed together. 

Thank you.