New cases, new questions

Government’s reopening of the country’s borders together with travel by Bahamians and residents to COVID-19 hotspots, was expected to result in the importation of new cases, and so it has.

But a lack of details on the country’s new cases leaves a vacuum of unanswered questions — a dearth that government ministers have wasted no time in filling by attributing the uptick in cases to residents letting down their guard.

In the last six days, The Bahamas recorded seven new COVID-19 cases; six on Grand Bahama and one New Providence.

Two of the cases on Grand Bahama and the New Providence case have a history of travel.

If one person can have anywhere between 50 to 80 contacts as the country has previously been told, at least 350 to 560 people may have had direct contact with the new cases.

But during the period, health officials conducted 41 tests, and it has not been disclosed how many of those tests represent repeat swabs on individuals.

Given guidance by the World Health Organization (WHO) that testing together with contact tracing and containment, are key to preventing surges in COVID-19 cases, the question persists of why so few tests are being conducted, particularly now that travel from COVID-19 hotspots is consistent.

All visitors, as well as Bahamians and residents on trips spanning more than 72 hours, are required to submit a negative COVID-19 PCR test result ahead of travel.

Though no testing and entry protocol can fully eliminate the risk of importing COVID-19 to the country’s shores, it will be important for government to indicate what investigations by health officials will have revealed with respect to those protocols, and the importation of COVID-19 by Bahamians and residents with a history of travel.

Grand Bahama’s COVID-19 Task Force in a release yesterday, indicated that the island’s new cases — five Bahamians and one immigrant — “are being placed in isolation quarantine is a secure facility monitored by health professionals, police, immigration and defense force personnel.”

The same protocol was not announced for the newly designated COVID-19 case on New Providence, and the task force did not explain why the Grand Bahama cases were removed from home isolation and placed into a government-guarded facility.

Also, yet to be disclosed is whether new cases with no history of travel are thought to be import-related, and officials have not indicated how any of the newest cases came to be discovered.

When Prime Minister and Minister of Health Dr. Hubert Minnis first announced that the country had arrested community spread of COVID-19, it was welcomed news for many, but was also viewed as dubious in some quarters given that widespread testing is not taking place.

It was based on this determination that the country transitioned to the final point of its phased reopening.

If community spread is once again suspected, Bahamians are now questioning whether lockdowns and the reinstitution of expanded curfews are on the horizon.

And they are also questioning the extent to which entry protocols are enforced for all travelers.

Balancing act

With an infection rate hovering around 20 percent of those tested for COVID-19 in Florida and marked increases in hospitalizations, officials there are cautioning that the disease is spreading rapidly within the state, putting people at high risk of contracting the disease.

Just one month ago, the rate of positive tests in the state stood at around five percent.

Despite recommendations to avoid non-essential travel to COVID-19 hotspots that are popular destinations for Bahamians including Florida, many are boarding planes and ships to these areas, nonetheless, and if their return is within 72 hours and they are infected with COVID-19, they will be untested travelers whose health status may never be discovered unless they become symptomatic or a contact of theirs does.

The public has not been told how many Bahamians and residents taking short trips abroad are being placed in monitored self-quarantine upon their arrival, nor has the success rate of the government’s monitoring program been disclosed.

How diligent Bahamians are with personal safety protocols while traveling to COVID-19 hotspots, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess.

Florida’s governor has indicated that he will not issue a statewide order requiring the use of face masks, but counties throughout the state are executing such orders, as COVID-19 testing laboratories in various states cite mounting backlogs due to increased testing demands.

These demands are resulting in longer wait times for results, a factor that further complicates the travel health visa application process for visitors and Bahamians, a process that requires receipt of a negative PCR result within 10 days of travel.

It was a difficulty expressed by tourists from Boston who made headlines after being filmed scaling a fence to access Cabbage Beach during the holiday weekend’s mandatory beach closures on Paradise Island.

The three tourists, who claimed they were initially told they would have to return home after arriving on a flight to New Providence without a negative PCR test result, said getting a PCR test result within a seven to 10 day window was difficult.

What is not known is how the guests were granted entry into the country in the absence of the test result required as per emergency orders and as a prerequisite to receiving a travel health visa.

Their comments prompted concern over how many other visitors might have been granted entry into the country without a negative PCR test result, and what this could mean for the level of COVID-19 mitigation health officials are seeking to realize through existing entry protocols.

While the opening of the country’s borders requires a balancing act of restarting tourism and protecting residents and guests, more and more Bahamians are openly questioning whether the risks, at this time, outweigh the benefits.

If the country’s new cases prompt fresh restrictions, government will be faced with acknowledging whether its decision to reopen the borders in the midst of record COVID-19 surges in the United States was premature as opponents argued.

The U.S. currently has over 3.4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, a figure its Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says could only represent about 10 percent of all cases.

Of the confirmed figure, over 1.7 million are active cases, and there have been over 137,000 deaths.

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