By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A senior Ministry of Tourism executive yesterday urged the Bahamas to “step up its game” on the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out over fears its Caribbean rivals are outpacing it.
Kerry Fountain, the Out Islands Promotion Board’s executive director, told Tribune Business he had just attended a Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) meeting where it was revealed that more than 60 percent of hotel workers in Turks & Caicos have already been vaccinated against the virus.
Some 30 percent of the total population in The Bahamas’ immediate southern neighbour have also been inoculated against COVID-19, while Barbados media reported five days ago that more than 60,000 persons - over 20 percent of its population - have also received their jabs.
Ed Fields, deputy chair of the National COVID-19 Vaccine Consultative Committee, yesterday said more than 5,000 Bahamians and residents have received their Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to-date, but as a proportion of the country’s total 400,000-strong population it pales in comparison to the likes of Turks & Caicos and Barbados.
The extent to which the local population is vaccinated will likely be a key factor determining which destinations travellers choose to visit, COVID-19 and Mr Fountain voiced concern that The Bahamas may be placed at a competitive disadvantage in tourism’s rebound if rivals remain ahead in this area.
Calling for “all hands on deck” over the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, he told this newspaper: “What remains a challenge for us, and not just in the Family Islands but throughout the island of The Bahamas, is acceptance of the vaccine and then the distribution of the vaccine.
“When I say challenges with the vaccine, it’s not just putting it in folks’ arms, but encouraging people to want to take the vaccine. I was on a BHTA call today, and Stacy Cox from the Turks & Caicos Islands reported that 60 percent of their hotel workers received the vaccine and 30 percent of the population received the vaccine.
“Those are big numbers, even though their population is much smaller. Sixty percent is 60 percent and 30 percent-plus is 30 percent. We received our first vaccines about two weeks’ ago, some 20,000 shots, but up to this weekend only 1,500 persons had received them,” Mr Fountain continued.
“That number will have changed [to 5,000 now] but you’d think that if we get 20,000 vaccines in The Bahamas two to three weeks’ ago all would be gone by now. We have a challenge convincing Bahamians of qualifying age to take the vaccine and we need to step up our efforts in that regard.”
The first 20,000 vaccine shots were supplied by India, and The Bahamas is still awaiting to receive some 33,600 doses - out of 100,000 ordered - of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from the Pan Health Organisation’s (PAHO) COVAX facility.
Those 120,000 total shots, though, are still way short of the likely 280,000 needed for The Bahamas to meet the so-called “herd immunity” threshold of having 70-80 percent of its population vaccinated against COVID-19.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, recently argued that tourism industry workers should be “prioritised” to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as it will help create the impression among travellers that The Bahamas is a relatively virus-free nation thereby helping to spark the sector’s revival and that of the wider economy.
Echoing these sentiments, Mr Fountain said The Bahamas has little time to waste if it is to establish a competitive advantage on tourism’s rebound given that the US - from which it draws more than 80 percent of its visitors - could achieve ‘herd immunity’ by mid-July and be in a position to resume mass travel.
“Consumers are not just shopping for great beaches and beautiful waters. They’re shopping for destinations with great beaches, beautiful waters and those that can show every day they’re getting more and more vaccinated,” Mr Fountain told Tribune Business.
“After today’s BHTA meeting, it does raise an eyebrow when you know how many vaccines have been received by Barbados or a small nation like Turks & Caicos.” Acknowledging that the Prime Minister has confirmed more vaccines are due to arrive in The Bahamas shortly, he noted this nation’s proximity to the US which has been inoculating persons at the rate of 2m-3m per day.
Questioning if The Bahamas has “reached out” to the US for increased supplies, Mr Fountain said: “I’m not talking 20,000 vaccines in cold storage; I’m talking more than 20,000 vaccines administered. That’s a challenge we need to embrace.
“We need to get more of our influencers involved in selling the idea it’s OK to take the vaccine. There’s the leaders in the religious community, the health arena, politicians, athletes, the likes of ‘Sawyer Boy. We need all hands on deck. We also need some of our union leaders to step up and speak to their members.
“The fact is by mid-July at this pace 70 percent of the adult population will have received the vaccine, and by mid-September 85 percent of the US adult population will have received the vaccine. If you’re talking about them having herd immunity by mid-July, early September we need to step up” and ensure The Bahamas is sufficiently vaccinated in time for the ramp up in travel.
Mr Fountain said The Bahamas needed to “now start having discussions” on when, and how, it will revise its COVID-19 health travel protocols as its major tourist source markets start to move towards herd immunity and resume mass travel.
Warning that such talks cannot be held “in isolation”, and required the involvement of all health and tourism industry professionals, he asked: “Are we going to require a vaccine passport and, if not, a vaccine passport, what is the protocol? The US is going to have herd immunity in a few months. What is our travel policy? Do people still need to get tested and have a health visa before they come?”
The Bahamas’ COVID-19 vaccine roll-out will be more difficult logistically than for more many other nations because of its multi-island nature, and Mr Fountain said he is still awaiting details on how it will be distributed in the Family Islands.
He backed arguments by Renward Wells, minister of health, that the relatively small populations - especially in the southern Bahamas - meant it made more sense for entire islands to be inoculated at one time rather than by age group as is happening in New Providence.
“If you vaccinate everybody it provides that destination with an advantage,” Mr Fountain explained. “You don’t have to worry about someone coming down with COVID-19 and then have to fly them to Nassau in an emergency.
“That’s a good health reason for business. In some of the southern islands you can plant a flag like they do on the moon and say the population is 100 percent vaccinated; tourists are free to roam. It gives those islands a competitive advantage.”