The Ministry of Health warns the introduction of the Wuhan coronavirus to the Cook Islands would poses a potentially fatal threat to the health of the population and could quickly overwhelm national resources.
Secretary for Health Dr Josephine Herman issued a detailed new travel advisory last night – the outcome of Cabinet-level discussions responding to advice from health, tourism, immigration and transport officials.
She said the 2019 novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease outbreak in China hade now spread to 25 countries around the world.
This was a rapidly evolving situation with at least 10,000 confirmed cases of the virus reported, 99 per cent of them in China. There had been more than 200 related deaths in China, and another 1527 people are in serious condition.
A new travel restriction is now in place: People intending to travel to the Cook Islands who have been in China within the last 14 days prior to travel will be denied entry into the Cook Islands.
Dr Herman said the National Health Emergency Taskforce was strengthening response measures to minimise the impact of the virus, should it arrive in the Cook Islands.
But she has admitted the country’s supplies of personal protective equipment – suits, gloves, footwear and face masks – is very limited and they couldn’t even supply health workers, let alone the public.
Locals have been advertising online asking for people to bring in supplies of face masks from overseas. But even overseas, retailers in the US and Australia are reportedly running out of antiviral face masks.
“People believe wearing masks will protect them against a novel organism they’re scared about,” said Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist in Arizona, USA. She told TIME she understood the fear, but there was very little risk outside the China hotspots.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently recommend people wear face masks in public to prevent infection, saying the best preventative measures include washing hands and covering coughs.
The World Health Organization has declared the virus to be a public health emergency of international concern, and expressed concern about its potential spread to countries with fragile health systems.
Cook Islands is one such country: although its public health service is effective, it had no tertiary hospital care, and would not be able to evacuate infected people on commercial flights to New Zealand.
Dr Herman said: “The Cook Islands is home to a large population of aged persons as well as those with noncommunicable diseases, and the health system lacks advanced tertiary respiratory health care services.”