By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
HEALTH and Wellness Minister Dr Michael Darville says the government is considering tightening travel restrictions even further as more countries detect the new Omicron variant.
This comes after the Davis administration imposed a travel ban on non-residents who recently visited Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe and South Africa — where the strain was first detected.
Bahamians and legal residents who are returning from having visited these countries will not be denied entry into the country but will have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine at their own expense.
Yesterday, Dr Darville said there could be further restrictions added in the days ahead since the COVID variant has been recently identified in several other countries, including the US and UK.
“We’re following the new variant very closely and you could rest assured that our technical team and our advisors are definitely guiding us in the right direction,” the minister said before going to a Cabinet meeting.
“We’re watching it. Our travel advisory was clear with the restrictions and as we follow the day-to-day issues as it relates to the new variant, we must be mindful that there may be some additional changes as it relates to our borders and some of our protocols.
“This thing is very fluid. We know our tourism sector is now rebounding and we must be mindful of how we implement new regulatory regimes but it is being discussed as we speak.”
While he did not elaborate on what sort of restrictive measures are currently being discussed, Dr Darville admitted there is some concern about the rapid antigen tests potentially not being “adequate enough” to detect the new strain.
Former Health Minister Dr Duane Sands on Monday recommended the government move away from rapid antigen testing and instead require all travellers, including fully vaccinated people, to produce a negative RT-PCR test no later than three days prior to arrival.
Current travel protocols require unvaccinated travellers entering the country to take a RT-PCR COVID test no older than five days and produce a travel health visa.
The requirement is the same for fully vaccinated people, however they have the option to undergo a rapid antigen test instead of the PCR.
Dr Darville said officials had already been considering amending the travel requirements in view of the new strain and said a final decision on the matter is expected to be made soon.
“We have been considering it from the first day we learned about the virus and the new mutation. Our borders are one of the most vulnerable areas for the importation of this new strain and so that is being discussed and within a few days, we will make a final decision,” he said.
“Our borders are open. As you look downtown, our tourists are back. There’s a testing modality on all cruise ships. There is testing that’s presently at our border and we are concerned that the rapid antigen test may not be adequate enough because this variant is very deadly and if it comes into our country, it could mean difficulties for us to be able to function effectively and allow our tourism to keep moving forward.
“The rapid antigen test is not a diagnostic test. It’s a screening test. The PCR test is the test that is diagnostic and for us, we need to make the decision particularly at our ports of entry at our airports and whether or not we would like the antigen test or the PCR test which is diagnostic in order for us to do a better job as it relates to the new variants that possibly could come to our shores.”
Asked yesterday if the National Reference Lab was planning to send positive samples abroad to determine if the new strain is in the country, Dr Darville said at the moment, there is no evidence to suggest the variant is here.
However, he said officials will remain on high alert to ensure the Bahamian people are protected.
“As it stands right now, we are not convinced that the variant is in the country but with that being said, the National Reference Lab will be put on alert. We will do all in our power to ensure that Bahamians are protected, and we do send samples abroad to be tested to see whether or not the variant is actually in the country, but we do not think so at this particular time.”
The Bahamas joins a growing list of countries that have implemented similar travel bans against South Africa because of the newly discovered Omicron strain.
The move has since been criticised by officials of the World Health Organisation, who called on countries to follow the science to avoid using travel restrictions.
Responding yesterday, Dr Darville said: “For us, as a small country and with us having difficulties in our healthcare system, we must be very vigilant and we must do what’s best for The Bahamas and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”