St Vincent fears COVID-19 outbreak with volcano evacuations

Officials in St Vincent said they were extremely worried about a COVID-19 outbreak given the lack of water and more positive cases being reported. Thousands of evacuees fleeing the erupting volcano crowd into shelters and private homes.

About a dozen cases have been reported in recent days, with at least five evacuees staying in two homes and one shelter testing positive, exposing at least 20 people to the virus, said Dr Simone Keizer-Beache, chief medical officer on the Caribbean island.

Keizer-Beache said officials are preparing to do massive testing as part of contact tracing, a complicated undertaking given that between 16,000 to 20,000 people were evacuated before La Soufriere’s explosive eruptions started on Friday. She also urged people to keep wearing masks and asked them to cooperate, noting that some who arrive at shelters do not want to be tested, which is voluntary.

“Let us work together to prevent a second catastrophe,” she said in a press conference broadcast by local station NBC Radio.

Complicating efforts to fight COVID-19 is the lack of water in some communities given the heavy ashfall, with people walking or driving to spigots with buckets and jugs in hand as long lines formed.

Among those in line was Suzanne Thomas, a 46-year-old saleswoman from South Union, a community in eastern St Vincent that has been hit with water shortages since Saturday. She had welcomed nine evacuees into her home who are huddled together, sleeping only on rugs and blankets.

“It’s real rough. We have to use one jug of water to shower, brush your teeth and flush the toilet,” she said, laughing as she added: “Water conservation.”

More than 4,000 people are staying in 89 government shelters. Meanwhile, the government so far has registered more than 6,000 evacuees in private homes, a number that keeps growing, said Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves.

He said he worries about an uptick in COVID-19 cases in certain areas given dwindling water supplies or complete lack of water.

Heavy ashfall

“If we’re not careful, we’re going to have a spike, which could create a real danger in addition to what we’re having with the volcano,” he said. “Washing your hands when you don’t have a lot of water is problematic.”

Vegetation buried by ash (Photo: The Pigeon Express)

Garth Saunders, director of St. Vincent’s utilities company, said crews are still cleaning intakes of the island’s water and sewer system and expected water to reach more communities later Thursday, adding that ashfall has been very heavy. Neighbouring islands and organisations also have shipped water to St Vincent, where officials have distributed water bottles and dispatched water trucks.

La Soufriere is expected to keep erupting for days or even weeks, with a scientific team expected on Thursday to estimate the amount of gases expelled by the volcano and gather samples of pyroclastic flow material. Those analysis will tell scientists how the volcano is behaving and help them guess what it’s likely to do in the future, said Richard Robertson, who is leading the team for the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Centre.

The volcano had a minor eruption in December, and prior to that erupted in 1979. A previous eruption in 1902 killed some 1,600 people.