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How robust is the screening process for travelers?

When officials at yesterday’s Ministry of Health press conference advised that the ministry was not in receipt of COVID-19 test results for 135 Mexican workers engaged by Baker’s Bay in Abaco, and that it was investigating their arrival, it called into question the process of the country’s travel health visa application system central to screening travelers to The Bahamas.

 Heralded by Tourism’s Director General Joy Jibrilu as, “a very sophisticated and robust health visa application system”, the process requires the submission of a COVID-19 PCR test result from an accredited laboratory, as well as contact details and answers to a health questionnaire.

The data provided is what health officials said would be used to develop a risk stratification profile for each applicant.

When questioned on the COVID-19 status of the workers whose arrival this week was well documented on social media, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Pearl McMillan said the ministry was not in receipt of the results, and was seeking to confirm the details of the workers’ arrival and their health status.

Baker’s Bay’s Senior Vice President of Environmental and Community Affairs Dr. Livingston Marshall told this newspaper that all 135 of the company’s foreign workers have the system-generated travel health card.

That the agency responsible for assessing the application data of travelers could be unaware of the COVID-19 status of over 130 travelers on a single Bahamasair flight, raises questions on whether all travel applications are in fact being evaluated by health officials, and on the protocol of approving or rejecting a travel health visa application.

These questions cut to the heart of the quality of COVID-19 mitigation being provided by the application process for The Bahamas, which has opened its borders to travel from all countries, including the pandemic epicenter of the United States which is seeing record surges in new cases.

Mexico has the world’s highest rate of positive COVID-19 tests, ranks tenth in the world’s highest number of confirmed cases, and ranks sixth in the highest number of deaths.

Minister of Health, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis’ conspicuous though unsurprising absence from yesterday’s press conference left public health officials unable to adequately respond to a series of questions on the rationale behind accepting travelers from the U.S. at this time.

What their responses did suggest was that science is being forced to take a back seat to expediencies of the executive, and the pressures of a shattered economy.

Consultant Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis explained that instead of banning countries, the decision was taken to ban individual travelers based on the risk determined by their health profile.

This rationale is incongruent with that of the country’s medical professionals who earlier this year recommended travel restrictions for countries including China, Iran and South Korea, at a time when their case numbers were a mere fraction of the U.S.’ current figures.

Travel health visa applicants are asked to indicate whether they have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for, or is suspected of having COVID-19.

In a state like Florida, for example, which recorded over 10,000 new cases yesterday alone, exposure to a COVID-19 positive person is highly likely, a point used by officials to once again urge Bahamians to avoid non-essential travel to the U.S.

Notwithstanding case surges in the U.S., it was not revealed whether the ministry’s risk stratification protocol has resulted in the rejection of applicants thus far.

Dahl-Regis indicated that widespread testing for The Bahamas is “not anticipated” though testing supplies are well stocked, even as she stressed that it will be critical to capture new COVID-19 cases early, now that imported cases can be expected.

How this can be accomplished without widespread testing was not explained.

And this position on testing prompts concerns on whether government’s decision to curb widespread testing is based on the recommendation of health professionals.

Though the ministry reports 2,428 tests completed, it is unknown how many individuals have been tested, since the number of tests reported includes repeat tests on individuals.

Dahl-Regis cited an arresting of community spread as the reason widespread testing is not anticipated.

What the competent authority should explain therefore, is how the control of COVID-19 is so secure that widespread testing would be curbed, yet curfews and the curtailing of business operations are among emergency measures said to still be needed.

Answers must now be provided on whether the country’s travel health card system is little more than a rubber stamp of approval for would-be travelers.

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