THE Government is continuing to resist calls for a complete lockdown of the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, despite one of its major players, Alorica, so far accounting for the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in the island.
Since news emerged on Tuesday of a spike in the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Jamaica linked to the Portmore, St Catherine, branch of Alorica, there have been increasingly louder calls for a shutdown of the BPO sector in an effort to slow the spread of the infectious disease.
During a media briefing yesterday, Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton acknowledged the concerns surrounding the BPO sector in general, and Alorica in particular, as he announced that Jamaica had recorded 18 new cases of the novel coronavirus in the previous 24 hours, to move the country’s total to 143.
Of the 18 new cases reported yesterday, Tufton said: “Three cases are contacts of a confirmed case. The other 15 are under investigation, and there is some suspicion that a number of them are linked to the call centre in Portmore, but we are still investigating.
“The Alorica situation is the dominant challenge for us now in the country as relates to COVID-19 and its response. It represents, for us, the weak link, if you will, in the arsenal and the work that we have been doing. It is going to be, and is, very difficult to reach all those [staff members of Alorica], but even more so, to contact trace all the persons they have come in contact with.
“And, given the extent that we have had positive tests, it is quite clear that the possibility, the likelihood of spread by one of those individuals to their friends, neighbours… is real, and it is something that we need to take very seriously,” added Tufton.
He noted that the challenge with Alorica has brought into sharp focus the challenge with the BPO sector, but argued that, from a public health standpoint, much has been done to reduce the threat.
Tufton pointed out that there are 68 BPO facilities islandwide, with 62 inspected during the period March 14 and April 15.
He said 50 of the 62 passed the inspection in line with the existing Ministry of Health guidelines for the workplace, relating specifically to the COVID-19 risk, while 12 did not meet the criteria and were provided with work plans to address the issues.
According to Tufton, the health ministry continues to monitor and enhance the guidelines and is working with the association which represents the BPOs, and entities that are not members of the association, to ensure that the guidelines are met.
Tufton was supported by Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, who disclosed that Alorica had met the standard set out to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We are yet to determine how the infection had spread among the [Alorica] employees. In terms of the audit tool that was in place… [it] indicates that what measures were there were, in fact, adhered to,” she said.
“In addition to that, the ministry had put out a workplace policy with regards to COVID and we also looked at that, and the indications that we are seeing from the reports of the investigations of these BPOs is that there was compliance,” added Bisasor-McKenzie, days after Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that the police had launched an investigation into operations at Alorica and that criminal charges could be brought against anyone found to be negligent.
The CMO said the ministry has recognised that there is a need for more stringent measures to be put in place and that these will be implemented shortly.
In the meantime, Tufton used the media briefing to present a member of an unnamed BPO entity which has implemented proper safety measures, as he sought to underscore that some entities in the sector have put measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I wanted to give an opportunity to an entity that is complying with the measures to indicate to the populace, and to all of us, that it is possible for us to practise the social distancing, the sanitising… the measures that have been put into the protocol, to allow industry to continue while still observing the public health risks,” said Tufton
The health minister also announced that of the 143 individuals who have tested positive for the new coronavirus in Jamaica, 23 have recovered and have been discharged, while five have died.
Tufton added that Jamaica has now tested 1,424 samples, including the people who showed signs of severe acute respiratory infections.
He noted that 52 of the confirmed cases have been linked to Alorica.
“Just to say that the St Catherine Health Department is actively following the situation at Alorica and are being provided with additional support personnel to expedite their contact tracing efforts,” said Tufton as he indicated that the Kingston and St Andrew and the Clarendon health departments are also tracing people who work at the BPO.
“Of the total number of staff at Alorica, numbering 787, some 569 are from St Catherine, and we have made contact with 447… There are some challenges as it relates to 112 of those names because of addresses not being correct. We are, however, continuing the efforts to locate those individuals,” said Tufton.
He said the health teams have done 414 interviews and collected samples from workers at Alorica.
According to the health and wellness minister, 11 workers from Alorica and 10 of their contacts in Clarendon have been tested, with one returning a positive result, while in the Kingston and St Andrew area, 125 individuals were being sought with 30 tests scheduled for yesterday.
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