Allegation of Top Gov’t Officials’ Refusal to Abide by Coronavirus Precautionary Protocol Created Vacuum for Virus to Enter Liberia

L-r: Liberia’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Francis Kateh, Health Minister Dr. Wilemina Jallah and the Executive Director of NPHIL, Dr. Mosoka Fallah

Monrovia – On Monday, March 16, the government of Liberia announced the country’s first confirmed Coronavirus case with health officials telling reporters that the patient slip through the precautionary observation system.

The patient, who was later identified as Mr. Nathaniel Blama, is the Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Agency. He recently returned from Switzerland, a country that currently has 2,217 cases and has recorded 14 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Before the confirmed case, the government had announced that travellers returning from any country with 200 cases will be subjected to 14 days of precautionary observation. 

But addressing a press conference at the head office of the National Public Health Institute on Monday, Health Minister Whelmina Jallah said Mr. Blama refused to be kept in isolation when he returned to the country.

“The case was brought in by a Liberian male who came in and unfortunately for us [and] he kind of slip through our surveillance system by his own choosing,” said Dr. Jallah as she tried to avoid disclosing the name of the patient.

“But at least we have found him out and we are able to make the diagnoses and we are moving to do what we need to do to make sure that it does not spread to the rest of the public.”

Dr. Jallah also refuted claims that the health authority allowed Mr. Blama to elude the precautionary isolation process.

“We did not give him the go-ahead,” she said in response to a question that whether the patient was given preferential treatment by health workers at the airport.

“Even when you passed a restriction that ‘nobody should pass through the VIP’, maybe somebody will slip through the crack and we have been fighting against that for the longest time but it’s quite unfortunate that he was able to pass without us detecting him.”

President George Weah also mentioned during his address to the nation on Monday about the only case so far that the patient “chooses not to be quarantined”, a move that some say was in violation of the protocol.

The EPA boss’ alleged refusal to go under precautionary isolation validates previous speculations that several government officials returning from foreign trips were rejecting the protocol although several others – mostly non-government officials – were subjected to the compulsory observation.

There are also concerns that Montserrado County’s district representative Dixon Seboe, who recently returned from Spain, refused to be put under precautionary observation upon his return.

With a confirmed case now in the country, the head of NPHIL Dr. Mosoka Fallah told reporters that the lawmaker only recently agreed to be observed and tested.

“No system is full proof; there were cracks – we had over 240 persons that we took [under quarantine] and it cost the government so much money to keep them in precautionary observation center and we were convinced that no matter how the system is, there will be the possibility of cracks,” Dr. Fallah said.

Meanwhile, Liberia’s health authority says while it has been working to prevent the virus from the country it had considered plans to “manage a case in case it happens”.

And Dr. Fallah told reporters that the “second most important” process is tracing people who the patient might have come in contact with. He also disclosed that there are health workers already trained to conduct contact tracing.

“The next thing we have planned to initiate was active case detection at health facility for fever, cough and cold – that will spread our net, just in case there are potential contacts,” he said.

“No system is full proof; there were cracks – we had over 240 persons that we took [under quarantine] and it cost the government so much money to keep them in precautionary observation center and we were convinced that no matter how the system is, there will be the possibility of cracks.”

Dr. Mosoka Fallah, Executive Director, National Public Health Institute of Liberia

He called on the public to give health workers information about “anybody that may have slipped through the crack” after returning from a country that has more than 200 cases of the COVID-19.

There will be an “enhance screening with a special task force” at the country’s airport, he said.

Earlier, President Weah has announced several new measures to deal with the outbreak in the country.

President Weah described the virus as the “greatest threat to the wellbeing of the people of Liberia since the Ebola epidemic” which strained the country’s health sector and killed almost 5,000 people.

He stressed that anyone refusing to be subjected to screening at the ports of entry will be “arrested and taken into compulsory quarantine”.

“I want to assure the Liberian people that the situation is under professional management by the health authorities, who have adequately prepared themselves well in advance for this eventuality,” Mr. Weah said as he tried to allay fears of panic within the public.

“All of you should remain calm and report any suspicious medical behavior to the authority for our own safety.”

He emphasized the need for Liberians to take hygiene seriously and adapt to frequent washing of hands.

President Weah then postponed his planned “national count tour” and at the same time banned all flights from countries with over 200 Coronavirus cases and “non-essential travel” by all officials of government.

He also announced that non-essential civil servants be granted a “pay-leave until further notice” adding that the Civil Service Agency will determine those in said category.

“All citizens and residents are urged to avoid public gathering and large crowds – try to keep a minimum social distance of at least 6 feet from people with fever, cough, sneezing and difficulty in breathing,” said President Weah.