A rocky start
Exuma has become the second family island since July 1 to publicly raise concerns about safety protocols for its incoming air travelers, as Aviation Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar’s recent disclosure about the country’s travel health visa process confirmed our previously stated concern of whether all COVID-19 test results submitted by travelers were being screened prior to entry.
Yesterday’s Ministry of Health press conference revealed that some of those test results were fraudulent, though no official was on hand to report on how many fraudulent tests were submitted; whether this discovery was made prior to or subsequent to entry; and whether the fraudulent documents were submitted by locals, visitors or both.
Arising from new cases with a history of travel, Consultant Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis advised of an “amended” policy, stating that Bahamians and residents traveling abroad for 72 hours or less will now be required to submit to a mandatory 14-day quarantine if they are unable to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result.
The Competent Authority, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis previously indicated his view that COVID-19 tests and results abroad could not likely be obtained within a 72-hour period, hence his waiver of that requirement for Bahamians and legal residents.
But we question why all Bahamians and legal residents returning from such trips were not being subjected to mandatory quarantine from the outset, given that Emergency Order 4(a)(ii) states that their entry shall be permitted, provided they are “subject to mandatory quarantine upon arrival or alternatively opt to undergo a RTPCR COVID-19 molecular diagnostic test administered by the Ministry of Health upon arrival”.
An apparent breakdown in enforcement of this entry protocol for returning Bahamians and residents, together with D’Aguilar’s admission that protocols have only now been put in place to ensure that all visitors are screened prior to entry, point to a border reopening process that has been markedly less than efficient.
The country recorded three additional cases yesterday; two in Grand Bahama and one in New Providence. They had no history of travel.
Ten cases have been recorded in Grand Bahama in the past week, and contrary to public conjecture about travel to Florida post-July 1, the island’s COVID-19 Task Force head Dr. Frank Bartlett revealed that the travel history of Grand Bahama’s two travel-related cases occurred prior to the full reopening of the country’s borders.
Bartlett, who said sustained community spread has not yet been determined on the island, indicated that both individuals – a mother and daughter now COVID-19 positive – submitted negative COVID-19 test results ahead of a June 30 repatriation flight, results which were “12 days expired”.
It was notable information as contact tracing and investigations continue to determine how COVID-19 positive Grand Bahamians with no travel history and known contact with confirmed cases, may have become infected.
During the ministry’s last press conference, questions from Eleuthera were posed about safety protocol concerns at the island’s international airports and yesterday, Exuma raised similar concerns, indicating that “not a single representative from the Ministry of Health” was observed on July 2 to assess travelers onboard the island’s first international flight.
This observation was not addressed by officials, but once again brought to the fore apparent shortfalls in screening protocols that could leave Family Islands in a comparatively disadvantageous position with respect to the potential for imported COVID-19 cases.
Minnis’ now standard absence from his ministry’s press conferences left Grand Bahamians who are anxious about the potential for lockdowns and fresh curfew restrictions, in the dark on what could lie ahead for the island whose economy has been shattered by the back-to-back devastation of Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we have asserted, protocols are only as good as their enforcement and the ability of authorities to manage the same.
What the country has witnessed thus far are weaknesses in critical processes that, as case numbers potentially increase, could prove to be a weight that tipped the balances of reopening our borders and mitigating the risk of new surges in COVID-19 cases.
The health of the nation depends on government gaining a stable footing from its rocky start.