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Health Department Clears the Air on Recent Covid Health Advisory Rumors

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The Virgin Islands’ Department of Health (VIDOH) has taken immediate steps to counter misinformation surrounding a purported new health advisory regarding the Covid variant named XBB.

Multiple social media channels have been awash with erroneous reports. These baseless reports suggested that the new advisory, allegedly from the VIDOH, was advising the public to don double-layer masks and adhere to social distancing practices, painting the XBB variant as both deadly and elusive.

Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion was quick to set the record straight. “The rumors rampant on social media don’t hold any truth,” she declared. The commissioner underlined that there hasn’t been an advisory pushing for double masks or an increased emphasis on social distancing from the VIDOH. Encarnacion remarked, “Though mask-wearing remains a personal choice, we advise those feeling under the weather to wear one, ensuring the safety of others.”

Dr. Esther Ellis, VIDOH’s Territorial Epidemiologist, pointed out that the variant of current concern is EG.5, which does not pose any more of a threat than earlier strains. “It’s worth noting that even though XBB might spread more rapidly, there’s no evidence pointing to it causing more acute illnesses or boosting hospitalization numbers,” Dr. Ellis elucidated.

With vaccination being a formidable line of defense against Covid-19, the VIDOH is passionately advocating for the community to get their shots, which are accessible to anyone 6 years or older.

Vaccination Locations:

  • St. Croix: Walk into the Department of Health clinic situated at #35 Castle Coakley Unit 5. They’re open Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. No prior booking required.
  • St. Thomas (For Adults): Head to the Community Health Clinic at the Schneider Regional Medical Center. It’s open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. To get a FLU vaccine, please call (340) 774-7477. For children, you can set up an appointment at the Maternal Child Health Clinic by ringing 340-777-8804 ext. 2600.

Drive-through Covid Testing Locations:

  • St. Croix: Located adjacent to DOH’s red modulars in Estate Richmond, open weekdays between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
  • St. Thomas: At the Schneider Regional Medical Center loading bay, operating on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
  • St. John: VIPA Gravel Lot, with timings on Wednesdays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.

For test scheduling, you can log on to VIDOH’s official Covid portal or call the VIDOH hotline at (340) 712-6299 for St. Croix and 340-776-1519 for St. Thomas-St. John. They’re available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday.

If you exhibit symptoms reminiscent of COVID, the Virgin Islands’ Department of Health strongly advises you to undergo testing.

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USDA Celebrates 50 Years of the WIC Program in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Lauds Local Efforts

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) recently marked a significant milestone in the U.S. Virgin Islands, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. This notable occasion brought FNS officials to the territory to pay tribute to the dedication of local program providers, leaders, and beneficiaries who have contributed to the program’s success.

Leading the anniversary celebrations, Lizbeth Silbermann, FNS Northeast Regional Administrator, praised the substantial impact of the WIC program on the nutrition and well-being of Virgin Islanders. During her visit on February 16th, Silbermann expressed her admiration for the Virgin Islands Department of Health’s effective use of federal funds in renovating the WIC facility in Frederiksted. Highlighting the importance of a human-centered approach, she noted, “This building is a testament to focusing on the client experience within the WIC program, embodying human-centered design at its best.”

The ceremony acknowledged the long-serving WIC employees Gloria Carlos and Hilaria Duval, who have been with the program since its inception in 1974, as well as Linota Perez, a 44-year veteran. Silbermann celebrated their unwavering dedication to serving Virgin Islands families, emphasizing the program’s vital role in supporting the health and nutrition of mothers and children. “The legacy of the WIC program is enriched by its profound impact on the well-being of mothers and their children, ensuring a healthier future for them,” Silbermann reflected.

Justa Encarnacion, Commissioner of the Department of Health, echoed the sentiment that children are the cornerstone of the WIC program, stating, “The focus is always on the baby, which naturally extends to the entire family, reinforcing the bond through the joy of a new addition.”

The renovation of the Frederiksted WIC building, a project unfolding in two phases, is on track for completion in six months. Encarnacion reassured that all necessary measures for safety and security are being meticulously planned and implemented.

The FNS, a pivotal component of the USDA, is committed to ensuring that children and families in need across a broad spectrum from Massachusetts to the U.S. Virgin Islands, have access to food and lead healthier lives. The agency administers a variety of nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and child nutrition initiatives like the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, in addition to the WIC program.

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U.S. Virgin Islands Welcomes New Health Insurance Options, Thanks to Lt. Governor’s Efforts

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The U.S. Virgin Islands has taken a significant leap forward in healthcare accessibility, as Lieutenant Governor Tregenza A. Roach, in his dual role as Commissioner of Insurance, proudly announces the introduction of individual health insurance options. This initiative, heralded by Optimum Global Insurance Company (OGIC), fills a crucial gap in the healthcare landscape of the territory, promising a new era of medical security for its residents.

This groundbreaking development follows an exhaustive evaluation by the Division of Banking, Insurance, and Financial Regulation, culminating in the official licensing of OGIC to provide individual health insurance. The announcement, made during a May 2023 press conference by the Lieutenant Governor’s office, marks a watershed moment for healthcare availability in the region.

OGIC emerges as a beacon of hope, offering much-needed insurance solutions covering medical expenses, travel, life, and personal accident risks. In a strategic partnership with AXA PPP Healthcare Limited, a stalwart with an A+ (Superior) rating from AM Best, OGIC ensures robust financial backing for its policies, with AXA shouldering all financial risks.

Lieutenant Governor Roach underscored the critical importance of this initiative, particularly in light of the Affordable Care Act’s exclusion of U.S. Territories, which has left a significant portion of the population uninsured. “Addressing this gap and enticing insurers to offer individual products in the territory is a top priority,” Roach emphasized, highlighting his commitment to the health and well-being of Virgin Islanders.

OGIC’s product line, including Essential, Standard, and Superior plans, caters to a broad spectrum of healthcare needs from hospitalization and emergency care to outpatient services, with options for maternity and dental coverage. These plans extend across the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, other U.S. territories, the U.S. mainland, and even globally, ensuring comprehensive coverage for residents.

While pricing details remain to be discussed, individuals interested in exploring OGIC’s offerings can reach out to Joe Brugos at 340-774-2323 or via email at [email protected]. For inquiries about OGIC’s licensing or the operations of any insurer in the territory, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor’s Division of Banking, Insurance & Financial Regulation stands ready to assist in both the St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix Districts.

This initiative not only demonstrates the Lieutenant Governor’s dedication to improving healthcare access but also represents a significant step towards ensuring that all residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands have the health insurance coverage they deserve.

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Legislation to Enhance Behavioral Health Services Temporarily Paused in Committee

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A transformative piece of legislation aimed at amending the Virgin Islands Code to enhance access to behavioral health services has been temporarily paused in committee. The initiative, introduced by Senator Diane Capehart, seeks to inaugurate a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team for mobile crisis intervention and to establish the formal operation of the 9-8-8 telecommunication system for behavioral health crises.

Bill 35-0224, if enacted, would pave the way for a comprehensive community intervention team tasked with providing emergency assessments and referrals for individuals experiencing behavioral health crises. Senator Capehart’s vision includes the training of peace officers and the allocation of resources to the Bureau of Corrections for the training of correction officers and the provision of specific services. The bill also highlights the importance of training for nursing staff who manage patients during mental health episodes. A pivotal element of the bill is the creation of a 9-8-8 trust fund to ensure the financial sustainability of this critical service.

The V.I. Fire and Emergency Management Service has emerged as a vocal advocate for the bill, with Assistant Director of EMS, Lisle Evelyn, lauding it as a vital step toward addressing the mental health needs of the community. The proposed psychiatric emergency response team is seen as a model of best practice within emergency medical services, with the potential to foster a more empathetic and knowledgeable response to mental health crises.

Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion expressed her endorsement of the bill, particularly for its role in formalizing the National 9-8-8 suicide and crisis lifeline. She views the hotline as an essential resource that offers hope and timely intervention, potentially reducing the strain on emergency services by preventing the escalation of behavioral health crises. Encarnacion emphasized the need for consistent funding for the hotline, revealing plans to seek $1.1 million annually from the general fund to support crisis intervention efforts.

However, the discussion around the bill has revealed broader concerns within the legislative body about the territory’s commitment to addressing behavioral health issues. Senator Novelle Francis and Committee Chair Ray Fonseca voiced frustrations over the territory’s perceived inaction and insufficient resource allocation in the behavioral health sector. Similarly, Senator Milton Potter raised questions about the Department of Health’s capacity to implement the bill, while Senator Donna Frett-Gregory sought clarity on the strategic plan and funding source for the 9-8-8 trust fund.

Amid these discussions, the Department of Health has indicated plans to collaborate with the Office of Management and Budget to identify potential budget adjustments to fund the 24/7 hotline, which would be staffed by qualified therapists.

Despite the momentum behind Bill 35-0224 and the broad support it has garnered, Senator Capehart decided to hold the bill in committee due to pending amendments and an unforeseen adjournment caused by inclement weather in St. Croix. This pause is seen as a strategic step to ensure the legislation is fully prepared for future consideration, reflecting a commitment to thorough deliberation and the well-being of the Virgin Islands community.

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