The government is “fighting like hell” for an exemption from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new order that requires all travelers into the US to have a negative COVID-19 test, Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar said yesterday.
“We are fighting like hell to get a waiver of this requirement, appealing to anybody that we know in the US government to consider The Bahamas and, in fact, much of the English-speaking Caribbean for a waiver because the incidences of COVID are in most incidences so much [less] than the United States,” he said in an interview with The Nassau Guardian.
“So, the first request is, we’re small enough and have very few cases of COVID comparatively to the United States, Canada, and we should be considered for exemption.”
The CDC announced on Tuesday that as of January 26, air passengers are required to get a viral test, defined as a viral detection test for current infection (i.e., a nucleic acid amplification test or a viral antigen test), within the three days before their flight to the US departs, and provide written documentation of their laboratory test result (paper or electronic copy) to the airline or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19.
D’Aguilar said a number of Caribbean countries are communicating with their US representatives, and he expects the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the collection of the region’s tourism ministers, to lobby for a waiver.
While PCR tests are not widely available on many Family Islands, D’Aguilar said rapid antigen testing can be done with a few adjustments to the existing system, through which visitors to The Bahamas take rapid antigen tests after five days in the country.
He said travelers to the US should not be concerned, but noted that the Department of Public Health needs to move quicker than it has been to make the necessary adjustments to accommodate more antigen testing, particularly on some Family Islands where the tests are only available at government facilities.
“If visitors require a rapid antigen test, thankfully, when we devised our entry protocols, we built out an infrastructure to allow for rapid antigen tests,” he said.
“So, our five-day rapid antigen test brought about the implementation of an infrastructure where people could obtain these tests. So, we’ve got over 60 or 70 clinics or providers where you can obtain this rapid antigen test after you’ve been in the country for five days.
“It’s not working perfectly, but the infrastructure is there. So, at least in the Family Islands, which was the greatest concern about the rollout of this requirement, there is infrastructure in place which we can now tweak to make it work so that visitors returning to the United States can get the required test.”
As of last November, individuals arriving into The Bahamas — including visitors who are staying for more than five days and returning citizens and residents — are required to have a negative RT-PCR test within five days of arrival, must obtain a travel health visa and undergo a rapid antigen test five days after arrival in The Bahamas. Any individual who tests positive on the antigen test is required to take a follow-up RT-PCR test.
Officials recently said that since November, roughly 26,000 antigen tests came back negative. However, Ministry of Health Senior House Officer Dr. Cherita Moxey said that 21,000 people, or roughly 46 percent of individuals, were supposed to have taken the rapid antigen test but did not.
As of January 12, The Bahamas recorded 8,011 cases of COVID-19. New cases continue to remain in the single digits though. A total of 6,351 people recovered from the virus and there were 1,433 active cases at last report.
D’Aguilar said visitors have nothing to worry about “because there are facilities that are offering this test, obviously not for a fee, but that’s a tweak that we’ll have to make”.
He said it is also important that the government ensures that it has adequate capacity.
“You know, in some Family Islands, the only facilities available are the public health clinics,” he said.
“They have been slow to ramp up to deal with this five-day testing – very slow. “…They have to tweak their business model to accommodate this change. You know, there has to be a sense of urgency in order to make this work. Sometimes the public health clinics do not move with a sense of urgency. So, they need to get on board with this and figure this out, because we are going to definitely need them.
“They are the only provider in some of the more remote islands. So, if the remote islands are going to receive tourists, the public health clinics need to step up to the plate.”