By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas is in danger of "doing considerably more damage to the economy than it needs to" unless COVID-19 testing is massively ramped-up, a well-known businessman warned yesterday.
Robert Myers told Tribune Business that the government was locking down the country for another month on the basis of insufficient data due to the fact not enough Bahamians and residents have been tested to see whether they are carrying the potentially deadly virus.
Speaking before Dr Duane Sands, minister of health, confirmed to the House of Assembly that less than a quarter of one percent of the Bahamian population have been tested, Mr Myers argued that decisions were being taken using incomplete data that was "heavily skewed" because the sample size is so small.
While The Bahamas' COVID-19 death rate appeared "awfully high", this is based on 11 fatalities out of the 80 cases detected so far. However, the businessman argued that COVID-19 was likely to be far more widespread than these statistics indicated through asymptomatic carriers of the virus who show no signs of ill-health whatsoever.
It was reported yesterday that almost 25 percent of New York residents have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. While this suggests more than 2m of the city's 8.4m population may have become infected by COVID-19 at some point, it also places the mortality rate at 0.5 percent (11,460 confirmed deaths), and Mr Myers said ramped-up testing would likely produce similar results in The Bahamas.
While praising the prime minister's six-phase economy re-opening plan as "fine" and "looking good", Mr Myers said its release had not done enough to instill hope and confidence into the private sector that better days lie ahead in the absence of increased testing to give a better idea of when this will happen.
"I'm telling you right now that I don't believe we've done enough to understand the reality of what's happening," Mr Myers told Tribune Business. "I don't have enough hope that if we don't start doing that, and don't start testing more intensely, that we're going to open up any time soon.
"My biggest concern is by not doing that we continue to shut down the economy and do considerably more damage for a longer period of time than we otherwise need to. That's my gravest concern; by not doing the testing and not getting the right data, you're going to do much more damage to the economy and people's lives.
"Another 30 days of this is concerning; I'm sure it is for them [the Government] but they have to do more work. The testing kits cannot be half as expensive as the meal plans, feeding plans and loss of jobs. If we need to spend money on testing kits let's get them here because closing the economy for another month has to be costing hundreds of millions of dollars."
Dr Sands yesterday admitted The Bahamas was challenged to expand COVID-19 testing to anyone requesting it due to limitations on the availability of testing kits and swabs amid intense global demand/competition for these products and devices.
He added that the country currently possesses some 4,000 RT PCR test kits, which determine whether someone is positive or negative for COVID-19, as well as 1,100 swabs. Dr Sands said The Bahamas was exploring several avenues to expand its swab inventory.
Ministry of Health data shows that around 1,100 to 1,200 COVID-19 tests have been performed to date, with testing ramping up over the past weekend as healthcare workers were checked for exposure to the virus following an incident where a Sandilands patient infected several others when they were admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH).
The data showed that The Bahamas had tested 250 persons out of every 100,000 of its population as at April 25, 2020. While this rate was higher than Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago's, it lagged the likes of Barbados and Panama who are at 463 and 563, respectively.
Mr Myers said The Bahamas had to rapidly expand testing beyond persons who were "really sick" and be "more transparent" over associated data - detailing who it was testing, where and how many.
He also urged the country to begin serological testing, which detects antibodies to COVID-19, thereby determining who has - or may have had - the virus but been completely asymptomatic with no signs of ill-health.
"It's a Phase 1A based on no transparency in testing and data," Mr Myers argued, referring to the Bahamian economy's current state based on the Prime Minister's re-opening plan. "Let's have some transparency in data and testing. If you're going to shut down the economy for the next 30 days, be transparent in the data you're using.
"I'm not at all convinced, and I don't think anybody in the private sector and public is convinced, that the [death rate] numbers are anywhere close to where they say they are. We don't have enough testing, and don't have enough test kits. If all we're testing is people who are really sick, then you're going to have bad data, skewed data....
"If we go on their data, yes, we'll be closed. If we go on data that isn't broad enough, with an insufficient testing sample, yes, we could be months away from opening the economy back up. The numbers of people infected are likely to be considerably higher because of the asymptomatic nature of the disease," he continued.
"Most countries are at 10 percent, 20 percent of the population tested, and we're just over one-quarter of 1 percent. It's a problem, and we're spending millions of dollars on feeding people and don't have sufficient data to forecast. It's like saying there's a hurricane out there, shutter up your homes, but we don't know if it will hit or how bad it will be.
"We need to get enough information so that we don't kill a fly with a sledgehammer. Considering the measures being taken, it's like putting us on hurricane warning without any data. We're spending tens of millions of dollars supporting people and don't necessarily have the right forecast."
Mr Myers, emphasising that he was not trying to minimise the importance of wearing face masks, social distancing and other anti-COVID-19 measures, added of the Prime Minister's phased re-opening strategy: "We've got to do better to understand where the threshold is to get to Phase 1B, 2, 3, 4.
"If that's going to be the driver for when we open back up, we're got to put the testing in place to do that otherwise we're only cutting off our nose to spite our face."
Mr Myers, who is also the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) principal, said COVID-19 testing weaknesses had prompted the civil society group to partner with Think Simple and develop Bahamas Together, a web-based screening tool that can be used to identify where risks and "hot spots" related to the virus are and deal with them.