Friday 6.15pm UPDATE: The United States on Friday declared a public health emergency and announced significant entry restrictions because of a new virus that hit China and has spread to other nations. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who is coordinating the federal response, announced that President Donald Trump has signed an order that will temporarily bar entry to the U.S. of foreign nationals, other than immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled in China within the last 14 days. The new restrictions take effect at 5 p.m. EST on Sunday.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE government has banned travel from China because of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, the fast-spreading epidemic that has killed 171 people and infected thousands overseas.
Top health officials said yesterday that non-residents who have visited China in the last 20 days will be denied entry to this country regardless of their nationality and returning residents will be quarantined and monitored for symptoms during an incubation period of 14 days.
Two residents have already been quarantined upon arrival here yesterday, Health Minister Dr Duane Sands said. However, there remains no suspected, reported or confirmed cases of the virus in The Bahamas.
The World Health Organisation declared the new strain of the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern yesterday but strongly discouraged countries from imposing travel restrictions to China.
Dr Esther de Gourville, representative of the Pan American Health Organisation and World Health Organisation, said this country’s travel ban reflects special considerations.
“Sovereign nations can make decisions that protect the health of their citizens,” she said. “Let’s say in the specific case of the Bahamas, there is concern about the ability to quickly diagnose infection and implement containment. The declaration of a public health emergency of international concern does not reflect any uncertainty about the ability of the Chinese authorities to interrupt transmission or transmission in other countries but several countries in the world are currently unable to detect and respond to the virus.
“The declaration of an international emergency of international concern really allows an opportunity for countries with weak surveillance systems, weak clinical management systems, to be assisted to respond to this virus.”
Dr Pearl McMillan, chief medical officer at the Ministry of Health, said: “Persons who must travel in that region must take precautions to protect themselves by avoiding direct contact with sick people and products that come from animals. Be diligent. Pay attention and equip yourselves with travel advisory information related to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus before you travel. If during or after your travel symptoms are experienced, you are encouraged to immediately contact a medical practitioner who will guide you as to the next steps. Be ready to give your full travel history to the healthcare providers.”
Explaining how quarantine works, Dr Sands said: “Quarantine is going to require separation of individuals. It’s very important for people to understand, especially as Bahamians return to the Bahamas, that you will not be allowed to interact with your family, your mother, grammy etc because if you do they will be put under quarantine as well. This is not going to be a situation where there is loose or flexible movement. Once you enter the country, there will be a 14 days of quarantine.”
Government officials are reportedly in close contact with Bahamian students in China. Unlike countries like the United Kingdom, which chartered a plane this week to evacuate more than 200 of its citizens from Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak, Dr Sands said there is no programme to repatriate the 160 or so Bahamians currently in China.
“Once they arrive, and typically they will travel through Canada, the United States, Great Britain or Cuba, once they arrive in the Bahamas starting today (Thursday), every person who has been in mainland China, they will be quarantined,” he said.
Dr Gourville added: “(The countries evacuating citizens are ones) that are able to deal with the consequences of possibly infected persons arriving on their shores and certainly many of them are implementing the kinds of quarantine that’s being discussed when their citizens return. I don’t think that we should think that it’s a simple decision to take to just bring your citizens home. The responsible public health action also needs to be taken when persons travel from affected areas into unaffected areas.”
Dr Sands was careful to emphasise that there is no ban on Chinese nationals and that such residents who have been here for more than 20 days have the privilege “to enjoy the Commonwealth of The Bahamas without restriction.”
Immigration officers apprehended some Chinese migrants this week. Clarence Russell, the director of immigration, told The Tribune after yesterday’s press conference that the migrants did not visit China within the last 20 days and were screened for the coronavirus and cleared by PAHO.
The WHO has declared public health emergencies of international concern only five other times: the swine flu epidemic in 2009, polio in 2014, the zika virus in 2016 and Ebola in 2014 and 2016.
Bahamian officials say dealing with outbreaks like Ebola has allowed them to spring into action to promptly deal with the latest threat.
Common signs of coronavirus infection are a fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection causes pneumonia, severe respiratory distress, kidney failure and death. There is no vaccine or cure for the virus, but international reports suggest some people respond well to medical treatment.
Records show that those with severe symptoms and who have died from the virus had underlying serious health conditions like diabetes or heart conditions, according to Dr Gourville.
To date, there have been 8,235 confirmed cases of the virus, 8,124 of which have been on mainland China.