While former Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands said yesterday he supports the reopening of the Bahamian economy, he urged the government not to play Russian roulette by reopening the country’s borders without sufficient testing capacity.
“I do not support a policy of open borders to untested individuals, especially if most of these persons travel from those locales known to have a high prevalence of COVID-19, those that come legally from a high-incidence country,” said Sands, while contributing to the 2020/2021 budget debate in the House of Assembly.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, the competent authority, closed the border in March in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.
It is set to fully reopen on July 1.
Sands warned that The Bahamas should expect a second wave of the new coronavirus if the reopening of the country isn’t handled carefully.
“Yes, we need to restore our economy, but we should not, cannot play Russian roulette,” he said.
The former minister stressed, “without a robust and consistent ability to test and definitively screen, isolate and track; if we take our eye off the ball and lessen our vigilance, we can and should expect a second wave of COVID-19 in The Bahamas”.
He said, “If that happens, I dread even considering the potential economic peril.”
Sands said The Bahamas should reopen “deliberately, cautiously and carefully and we should do so with data”.
“I do not support a policy that requires Bahamian citizens and residents to be tested, that does not place the same level of scrutiny on visitors. If we test any, we test all,” he said.
“And we must test more than we are doing now.”
Health officials in The Bahamas have conducted 2,252 tests to date. There have been 103 COVID-19 cases since March 15 and 11 deaths.
Sands said the country’s testing capacity has been very limited since the first case was recorded.
“We have had a series of challenges with testing capacity,” he said.
“As of June 7, we test at a rate less than 122 other countries in the world and we are well behind comparable countries in the region.
“Testing for COVID-19 is complex. I recognize and applaud the pivotal role played by our national reference lab led by Dr. Indira Martin. They have gotten it right.
“But The Bahamas has had challenges with every step of this process – swabs, RNA extraction kits, lab reagents and RT-PCR kits.
“And as a result, we have not been able to test as widely as we wished or needed to test.
“A number of persons who met the clinical case definitions for COVID-19 could not be tested and were not tested.
“Our geography has long been both a benefit and a challenge to our development. The threat from COVID is only the newest expression of a challenge placing us between the United States with the largest number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths and countries in the region like Haiti, and others in Latin America, like Brazil, where the spread of the disease is rampant and the ability to test inadequate.”
Sands said building sufficient testing capacity will require “moving heaven and earth”.
He said testing should be operationalized and done in partnership with the private sector to ensure The Bahamas is a safe place for residents and visitors.
“Many are hoping for a sun, sand and sea vacation after the dreary lockdowns,” Sands said.
“But they also want to be safe.”
He added, “There is no possibility that we can remain closed forever. As we move to liberalize intra-island commerce and activities as we seek to reopen to international visitors and invite cruise ships and aircraft back to The Bahamas, I stand here today to say caution. Yes open, but carefully.”
Sands resigned from Cabinet on May 4 over a controversy involving the landing of six permanent residents into The Bahamas on April 29 without having them test in advance. They were also allowed to quarantine at home, which was against the government’s stated protocols at the time.
The then minister said he had been focused on the fact that the residents were bringing in desperately needed swabs for COVID-19 testing.
He did not directly address that matter in Parliament yesterday, but spoke to it extensively in a recent interview with The Nassau Guardian’s Perspective.