By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
FORMER Health Minister Dr Duane Sands is warning health officials not to make the same mistake with the Omicron COVID-19 variant as they did with the Delta strain, saying this new threat, if not here already, might be in The Bahamas “fairly soon”.
Dr Sands said the government should tighten travel restrictions, requiring those entering the country to present a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours prior to departure.
The Omicron variant, which is now popping up in countries all over the world, was first identified in Africa. Several countries, including The Bahamas and the United States, have subsequently banned travellers from those African nations.
Dr Sands said although the real threat of Omicron is still unknown, Bahamians should be, “hoping and praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.”
“If you remember the whole discussion about Delta, we kind of had our head buried in the sand for weeks saying that we haven’t proven it to be here,” Dr Sands said.
“You can’t prove it if you don’t look for it. Given the fact that this variant is all over the United States, all over Europe, in a number of places in Africa and so on, there’s no reason to believe that if it isn’t here, that it’s not going to get here fairly soon. We ought to be hoping and praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.
“As to what clinical threat it is, I think it’s too early for the world to know. Scientists all around the world are very concerned about this variant and the fact that it has so many mutations that we don’t know how well we will be protected by vaccines or by previous infections with other strains of the coronavirus.”
Dr Sands pointed out that the Omicron variant was already outside of southern Africa by the time the alarm was sounded. He said it’s the same way the Wuhan version of COVID-19 had spread outside of China by the time the world first learned about it.
“What we learn then is that travel bans really didn’t help,” Dr Sands continued. “We did it because we didn’t know where we were, but hindsight should demonstrate to us that as a public health tool, it probably has limited utility. What would have real utility is beefing up your public health adherences and getting your population vaccinated.
“Even though this variant has multiple mutations on the body of virus as well as the spike, preliminary information is that there is some protection that is afforded by vaccinations and boosters.
“As our understanding of this thing evolves, then we also need to move along in terms of our vaccination programmes. One thing that has happened, even in the setting of relatively low numbers is you’ve seen the adjudication in the causes of deaths of patients.”
The Bahamas has confirmed more than 700 COVID-19 deaths, which Dr Sands said puts the country “in sad company” in terms of its overall experience with COVID. That equates to about 1,600 deaths per million which is not ideal, he said.
“Pound for pound we are underperforming the rest of the world and I think Bahamians ought to take note and particularly as this Omicron variant now is threatening,” he continued.
“This ought to be our wake up call. We did poorly with Delta so let’s not gamble with Omicron.”
Shifting gears a bit, Dr Sands spoke of what he thought should be an adjustment in the country’s testing rules for travellers.
“We should move to PCR testing to all travellers vaccinated or unvaccinated – citizens, residents, visitors— and to reduce the time of these tests to 72 hours,” he said. “Whether we want to be more aggressive and reduce that time line to 24 hours, I think puts a pretty logistical hardship on people, because sometimes it’s almost impossible to find a place to do a PCR depending on where you are.
“So 48 to 72 hours is certainly more reasonable than five days. We should move away from antigen testing alone. The approach that we have taken to restrict travellers from certain jurisdictions is more symbolic than anything else and probably will have no significant impact on whether or not we wind up having the Omicron variant in The Bahamas.”
Currently any person wishing to enter The Bahamas must present a negative COVID-19 test no older than five days. Vaccinated travellers have the option of taking an antigen or PCR test.
Recently, Dr Sands predicted there will likely be a fourth wave of the virus heading this way. His position has not changed and he reminded Bahamians there has been no “all-clear” given on COVID-19.
“I think that a fourth wave is likely and we have seen the eye of the storm before,” Dr Sands said. “We saw it between the first and second waves and we saw it between the second and third.
“A word to the wise is sufficient. We cannot pretend as a country as if there has been an all-clear. There has been no all clear from any agency by any indication.
“I think what we ought to do is push aggressively to get more people vaccinated. We ought to ensure that people understand the principles of public health interventions that they ought to be adhering to and they are doing the right thing in terms of avoiding indoor carousing.”
He said although inconvenient at times, COVID-19 interventions work.