Update on Sierra Leone and COVID-19

Sierra Leone is one of the few countries that hasn’t yet confirmed a case of COVID-19. But they are bracing for it. President Julius Maada Bio said on Thursday, “It is no longer a question of whether the coronavirus will come to Sierra Leone, it is a question of when. We cannot afford to wait for a positive case.” The country lost nearly 4000 people during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.

Sierra Leone has banned all public gatherings of more than 100 people, banned all sporting events, suspended overseas travel by government officials, and deployed soldiers at the airport and land borders. All passengers coming from countries with over 200 cases must undergo a quarantine.

Airlines were given 72-hours notice to stop all flights to Sierra Leone effective March 21. Learning of this, Dr. Richard and Cathy Toupin, UB Global staff at Mattru Hospital, made a hurried trip to Freetown. The last we heard, they secured passage on a plane leaving the country–perhaps the last one for a long while–and have begun their journey back to Indiana.

During the Ebola crisis, the Chinese built a high-containment Biosafe Level 3 (BSL-3) lab in Sierra Leone (the highest level being 4). This, according to the country’s health minister, made them one of only two countries in Africa with the facilities to test for the virus before it even arose. He said they have established three sites that can do 40 tests per day. (The US has 13 BSL-4 labs and hundreds of BSL-3 labs. There are BSL-4 labs in South Africa and Gabon, and BLS-3 labs in 3 or 4 African countries.)

The Chinese government announced that they were donating to Sierra Leone 1000 test kits, 1000 surgical masks, 1000 medical gloves, 500 respirators, 500 sets of protective gowns, and 200 medical goggles.

On March 18, a Kenya Airlines flight landed in Freetown with a suspected COVID-19 case. There were four Japanese passengers, and one of them had been coughing. Sierra Leone officials were given advance notice when the plane landed in Liberia prior to departing for Freetown.

Sierra Leone health officials required that all disembarking passengers be quarantined for 14 days. All four Japanese passengers stayed aboard, as did a number of other passengers who were not Sierra Leonean; they were probably returned to the country where they had boarded. The rest, all of them Sierra Leonean, were taken to one of the quarantine facilities already set up.

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