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Businesses fear labour shortages as COVID cases mount [featuring Chamber committee members]

Written by: James Whittaker (Compass)

Call for clarity over contact tracing requirements
Concern is growing over potential workforce challenges as COVID cases escalate in the Cayman Islands.

Businesses are seeking clarity over quarantine requirements for contacts of positive cases amid fears that large swathes of the workforce could be forced to stay home. There is also anxiety around how to keep essential services running if staff numbers become depleted due to infection or isolation mandates. Chamber of Commerce CEO Wil Pineau said there were obvious concerns, especially for small businesses who can’t afford to lose key staff for weeks at a time.

It is hoped that lateral flow tests can be deployed on a large scale to reduce the sphere of contacts that need to quarantine when a positive case is identified, making it easier for schools and businesses to continue to function.

Other business leaders, including former Chamber chief Woody Foster and Shomari Scott, who will be the next president of the business lobby, also highlighted judicious use of rapid testing as the best means to avoid society grinding to a halt as cases mount.

On 25 Oct., the last time government gave an official figure, there were 1,458 people in quarantine. Since then a further 218 people (as of 28 Oct.) have tested positive for COVID-19, meaning that number in isolation will have ballooned further.

Pineau said rising cases should not, in themselves, be cause for alarm.

“Living with COVID means we will need to protect ourselves as best as possible and with our vaccination rates, hygiene, and relevant mandates such as masks when in higher risk scenarios we should keep hospitalisations to a minimum,” he said.

“The surge in positives is to be expected as we reopen due to the way this virus has acted; however, the number that is most important is hospitalisations and persons in the ICU, which we need and hope to keep to a minimum.

“The conversation needs to change from the number of positives to hospitalisations and persons in ICU so we can reduce the level of fear and anxiety in our community and be confident that we have taken the necessary steps.”

The Chamber said the private sector will do as much as it can to assist workers in quarantine and welcomed the minister of health’s announcement of an ex-gratia fund dedicated to quarantined workers.

“This effort will lessen the fear of some of our most vulnerable employees that can’t afford extended periods of unpaid leave,” said Pineau.

Staff shortages
Several businesses have expressed concern that the contact tracing from positive cases is too far-reaching.

Nelson Dilbert, owner of the Alexander Hotel on Cayman Brac, said he had been forced to shut down the restaurant and move to a contactless check-in system at the hotel because the boyfriend of an employee tested positive for COVID.

He said all his staff wore masks and socially distanced and did not fit the official definition of primary contacts of a COVID case (being within six feet for 15 minutes).

Nonetheless, as of Thursday, 28 Oct., all his employees had been required to test and isolate, he said.
He fears that type of situation could be repeated many times for many businesses, causing massive disruption, unless a better method of following up on cases is found.

“We need clear definition of what is a direct contact and we need to stick to it,” he said.

“Most businesses are down to a skeleton crew; we can’t afford to lose staff like this.”


Lateral flow test offer hope
Woody Foster, former president of the Chamber and owner of Foster’s grocery store chain, said the impact of lockdowns was already evident. He hopes the increasing use of lateral flow tests will stop people from being forced to stay home.

When health officials closed George Town Primary and required all parents to quarantine, several businesses lost key staff for several weeks.

At one stage, Foster said, his business was 35 people down, including two senior managers from the same store. It was challenging, but Foster’s is a large-enough business to manage.

“When you spread it like peanut butter you can absorb the impact,” he said.

But as community cases become more common, he believes government is fine-tuning how and when to quarantine contacts of positive cases. Lateral flow tests are considered key to keeping people working.

With the assistance of lateral flow testing, he said, the situation would be more manageable.

“If we flood the country with these lateral flow tests and everyone follows the right protocols, we should not have to be dependent on the Health Services Authority managing the whole situation.”

Government used lateral flow tests to limit the amount of people that had to quarantine after an outbreak at John Gray High School.

Randy Merren, owner of Hurley’s, hopes that approach can be followed. He said it would be impractical to track, trace and isolate after every positive case while keeping businesses open.

“I am very concerned about it, for instance in our store, if someone in the meat department gets COVID, would we have to isolate everybody and shut down the meat department?”

Now that the majority of people are vaccinated, he believes it could be treated like the flu and people should stay home if they have the virus but otherwise come to work as normal.

Health City ready to help
Scott, who is the chief business officer at Health City Cayman Islands, said the understanding and management of COVID has come a long way since the hospital was forced to close after an outbreak last year.

He believes lateral flow tests, which can be self-administered daily, are the “game changer” that will allow key personnel, including doctors and nurses on the front line, to keep working through an outbreak.

With 80% of the population vaccinated, and mask and social-distancing policies in place, he said there were multiple layers of protection.

“The lateral flow tests is what will allow us not to lose huge swathes of the workforce due to being primary contacts,” he added.

Scott said Health City had learned from the experience of its partner hospitals in India as well as other facilities across the region and was confident it would stay open and provide whatever services are needed if there is an outbreak. Given Cayman’s high vaccination rate, significant hospitalisations are not anticipated, but Scott said Health City could jump into action if necessary.

“We hope we don’t need them but we have a COVID ward, we have ventilated beds, we have an ICU and we are ready and willing to play our part.”