Brace yourselves, because Belize is entering into its fourth wave of COVID - and this time there are no mask mandates or social gathering restrictions to keep the virus at bay.

The Ministry of Health announced this along with the discovery of a new variant in country: Omicron BA.2. This new variant explains the rapid increase in daily positivity numbers over the past few days and the ministry has now increased its surveillance.

Today, Director of Public Health and Wellness, Dr Melissa Diaz, explained that the cases are mostly centered in the Belize District:

Dr. Melissa Diaz - Director of Public Health and Wellness
"We do have areas in the country that we're seeing more positive cases and like other waves, it's very similar. The district of Belize has the highest number of positive cases as well as the highest in regards to positivity rate as well. Followed behind by Cayo and then in the other districts we're not seeing the number of positive cases that we saw in the other waves. So we're focused primarily on the Belize District, looking at the significant number of positive cases coming out of the Belize District. It is actually a sub variant of Omicron so minimal changes when compared to BA.1. We have noticing that primarily people are describing a sore throat as one of the more common symptom, headache, sinusitis, or congestion, some people still have joint pains, feeling that fatigue, that bone pain, and of course we do have a smaller percentage still presenting with cough and pneumonia and may need hospitalization but at this point, when we're looking at our hospitalization points, we're seeing that it is not as yet increased which is something very positive and this can be attributed to many things. The Ministry of Health and Wellness, we have now embarked on enhance surveillance and enhanced surveillance generally means that we're not sitting down waiting at the clinics for sick people to come in but we've started to go back into the community, public places, into whoever calls us or any company that needs our help, we go in and we do what we call a sweep, we swab as many persons who would like to be swabbed and this helps us to detect cases early, if we detect cases early, we isolate cases early, and of course that helps with the containment of spread."

And when we asked Dr Diaz if she believes the mandates were relaxed too soon, she disagreed, but added that now it's up to personal responsibility to protect yourself and your loved ones:

Dr. Melissa Diaz
"In terms of getting rid of it too fast, I think we progressively lifted many of the measures. At this point, I think that we try to reiterate to the general public, the importance of personal responsibility, responsibility to your family and the community and we all know, I'm certain the Ministry of Health and Wellness, we have provided the population with all the necessary tools they need to contain and control the spread. It's now up to us with regards to what we do. So we are appealing to the general public to please continue to use your mask over your nose and mouth when you're in doors or in crowded spaces and try to avoid very crowded spaces, especially indoors. It's where we strike the balance at this point and how we can move on as a country and as a community while still trying out best to contain and control and protect the vulnerable people."

COVID Clusters In Schools

And the new variant has likely hit schools already, since the ministry has confirmed that clusters have been discovered in a few of them. And with schools trying to return to full face-to-face by the next school year, many parents are concerned. But, again, Dr Diaz explained that schools will have to keep practicing the public health measures - or even consider temporary distance learning if cases get out of hand:

Dr. Melissa Diaz - Director of Public Health and Wellness
"We have by the definition, we do have some clusters in certain areas, certain businesses, we're seeing a trend of more and more cases coming out and definitely in some schools. Now, in regards to the schools, it is important that we have learnt a lot from COVID 19 and when schools started in the hybrid manner, we had quite a successful few months with that hybrid learning, now that schools have been trying to go back fully and now that the BA.2 is circulating and we're seeing increased numbers, it's something that we've got to look at the school individually. But first and foremost, the public health measures, trying to stress to the kids and teachers and the principals, the important of the public health measures, the social distancing, reducing a lot of what we know may cause spread and try to be as strict as possible in the classroom, keeping the classrooms open, having the hand washing done regularly so all these things will help to reduce the transmission. And in classes, if you have a class of 20 students and ten are positive at that point, or four are positive, we need to say we've got to make a decision for that class, let's suspend that class and we go back to the hybrid learning and we've got to wait until that transmission cycle has been broken. So those are some of the individual recommendations that we're doing with the Ministry of Education and with schools individually as well."

And today the president of the BNTU emphasized that need for schools to not hide their cases. This comes after the allegation that a Belize City primary school had not informed parents of students and teachers that were reportedly infected. President Elena Smith said the information is necessary for others to protect themselves:

Elena Smith - President, BNTU
"One of the concerns that we have though is the fact that we have students at our schools who are positive, we have teachers who have tested positive and nothing being is said at the schools. It's like everything is a secret and we have to understand that it is important that the people you work with are aware so they can take the necessary precautions and so if I have a colleague who tested positive, I need to know because maybe we were having lunch together, maybe that person was in my class and we were doing work together, I have to know these things. Not because I need to do know your business but it's important as a staff we are also aware we have teachers out because they get sick they are positive, we want to be careful and test, things like that. If a teacher has students in her class who tested positive, they have to know because our students are back and even though they are wearing masks, they are still working in groups, they are now having lunch, they are out during break time, so things can happen. So, I am hoping and I am pleading to our schools if you have kids at your school, please don't hide it especially from the teachers, let them know. So with this new revelation that we have now detected this new variant and we see the cases spreading, we don't know how quickly it will spread and hopefully we will be able to make it to the end of the school year before things get worse but if it is that cases start going up again, then we would have to do our part as a union and discuss with the ministry the best way forward because we have to protect our children and our teachers."

Dr. Diaz pointed out that 70% of the targeted population has already been vaccinated and that, since this is the fourth wave, there is a lot of natural immunity.

In addition, the ministry is now informing parents that children 5-11 years old are now eligible for the vaccine, which will be provided at schools on scheduled days as well as at the Western Regional Hospital.

For adults, though, the Pfizer vaccine currently in stock will expire at the end of May, but Johnson and Johnson will still be available, so it is recommended by MOH for those taking their first shot.

Channel 7