Tourist pretesting back on agenda - Tufton admits island’s COVID-19 response buckling under pressure
The Jamaican Government is reconsidering the imposition of COVID-19 pretesting of arriving tourists as the coronavirus response architecture at the island’s airports has been overwhelmed by passenger traffic, Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton admitted on Sunday.
“The numbers are growing, and we just don’t have the physical capacity to deal with the increase. The people (medical personnel) are burnt out and stretched while the equipment goes on down time,” Tufton said in response to queries that some visitors complained of waiting for up to 11 days before receiving their test results.
The health and wellness minister said that a more targeted approach was needed and that the Government might reopen the door to the pretesting of visitors, a recommendation made by the Medical Association of Jamaica.
About 5,000 tourists have arrived in the island since June 15. Jamaica had closed its ports to incoming passengers on March 24.
At least three Caribbean countries have announced pretesting for all visitors to their shores - Barbados and The Bahamas, which will reopen their borders this week, and Antigua and Barbuda.
On Saturday, Antigua Prime Minister Gaston Browne made an about-turn in favour of pretesting after lawsuit threats by tourists who tested positive and refused isolation.
Tufton said, in the meantime, that provisions were being made to hire more people while private laboratories were being tapped for sample collections. He said at least one lab was accredited.
The Government’s about-face comes as Jamaica tallied six new cases of COVID-19. Five of Jamaica’s six new cases arrived on flights from the USA, pushing the island’s active cases to 131.
The country now has 696 confirmed cases. Jamaica’s largest source tourist market, the United States, has reported 2.6 million cases, with more than 128,500 deaths at press time
A resurgence of the virus in America may cause alarm here as states such as Texas and Florida have reimposed containment measures as cases flare to record highs. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that US cases may be 10 times higher than those actually recorded.
Hoteliers told The Gleaner that they were concerned about the mixed messages telegraphed by medical personnel at the Sangster International Airport.
“The PM (prime minister) presents a flow chart via video which indicates that visitors must stay in their hotels until their results arrive, but the airport medical personnel, we understand, are telling visitors to stay in their rooms until the results arrive,” one hotelier, who requested anonymity, said.
Stakeholders have also complained about the slow turnaround in providing coronavirus results, which has exacerbated uncertainty for both visitors and hotel staff.
“That can take up to eight days, as was the case with some of my guests who arrived in Jamaica on June 21st, and when they were leaving on the 28th, they had still not received their result,” one hotel operator said.
The operator noted that the guests were disappointed, having cancelled travelling to Greece for Jamaica after learning of the island’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
“The only consolation we had was the fact they did their own tests before coming to Jamaica and were negative,” he told The Gleaner.
That group is not the only one to express concern about the situation. At least three other tourists posting on social media say they have waited several days to get their status report. One alleges that she waited for up to 11 days.
The minister said he was aware of three-day delays.
Tufton said that he did not expect any visitor to stay quarantined in their room for days, a matter that needed to be managed by hotel managers.
In the meantime, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is urging governments to avoid quarantine measures when reopening their economies. The association, which represents airlines worldwide, is promoting a layered approach of measures to reduce the risk of countries importing COVID-19 via air travel and to mitigate the possibility of transmission.
“Imposing quarantine measures on arriving travellers keeps countries in isolation and the travel and tourism sector in lockdown. Fortunately, there are policy alternatives that can reduce the risk of importing COVID-19 infections while still allowing for the resumption of travel and tourism that are vital to jumpstarting national economies,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO.
“We are proposing a framework with layers of protection to keep sick people from travelling and to mitigate the risk of transmission should a traveller discover they were infected after arrival.”
The IATA head said it was important that passengers not travel when ill.