Prior to the November 1 relaunch of commercial tourism, we expressed concern that history appeared to be repeating itself with respect to the country’s COVID-19 response as it prepared to welcome travelers from hotspots including the United States, now in its third and record-breaking surge.
With a withdrawal of plans to conduct rapid antigen testing on arrival for travelers who would no longer be subject to quarantine, a downward trend in nationwide testing, and inadequate reporting on compliance with fifth-day antigen testing requirements, our history of scaling back when risks of imported cases are highest, seems to have made a second appearance.
The nation’s chief medical officer has in previous press conferences argued that there is “no science” to support widespread community testing of asymptomatic individuals, even as studies continue to point to viral transmission by asymptomatic carriers, and inadequacies in symptom screening for these carriers.
In one of the largest studies on viral transmission by asymptomatic carriers published November 11 in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers observing 1,848 young marine recruits under a strict 14-day military quarantine found that asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 occurred even under stringent military orders where better compliance than in general population settings would occur.
The study also found that daily temperature checks did not detect infections among the recruits, suggesting that widespread and routine testing is necessary to facilitate effective containment of COVID-19.
Even with case spikes recorded on Eleuthera, Exuma and Grand Bahama, and with Ministry of Health interventions on both Family Islands, daily nationwide testing numbers have not increased on average.
Health officials this week put the positivity rate for Exuma — an island popular for both international and domestic tourism — at 79 percent, a figure indicative of an inadequate level of testing on the island.
With free public RT-PCR testing being conducted only on individuals who present as symptomatic, opportunities to identify new infections can continue to be missed, particularly with younger carriers who might be asymptomatic, but who pose transmission risks to older individuals or those with comorbidities.
The competent authority has once again admonished Bahamians against non-essential travel to the US, under the unscientific pretext that pretested Bahamian travelers pose more of a risk to The Bahamas than pretested US visitors.
The impact of that concern on enforcement of fifth-day antigen testing requirements for all travelers, is not clear.
Between November 1 and November 12 – 5,584 applications for travel to The Bahamas were made, 1,842 for visitors whose stay was expected to last five days or more, and 2,492 for Bahamians and legal residents.
Of 1,691 incoming travelers between November 1 and November 6, 752 were tested — four of whom tested positive — with disaggregated data for the remaining 939 untested travelers not available up to last week Friday.
Health officials have not explained why rapid antigen test results for travelers are not being published daily together with their applicable islands, as well as a breakdown of figures showing daily compliance with the testing requirement.
Though the competent authority acknowledges that open borders to hotspot travelers increase risks of new COVID-19 cases, the administration has dragged its feet on efforts by the legislature to hold safer proceedings so as to protect members of the two highest branches of government.
We understand that prior to House Speaker Halson Moultrie’s latest proposal to have Parliament move to virtual sittings, he pursued plans that resulted in a major resort offering the House of Assembly free use of its facilities, configured to enable all members of Parliament to attend proceedings with socially distant seating that would have exceeded current health recommendations.
Nevertheless, House members continue to meet in their cramped quarters where infections were previously recorded.
In so doing, government continues to demonstrate to the Bahamian people that it is unwilling to make the kinds of adjustments and accommodations for health and safety, that it consistently urges the general public to make.
The more things change in the country’s ongoing response to COVID-19, the more they remain the same.