By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
IN response to the new Omicron variant, the government announced yesterday it will impose travel restrictions against several African countries, including Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Starting at midnight, The Bahamas will deny entry to non-residents who recently visited Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe and South Africa.
However, as it relates to Bahamians and residents who travelled from those areas, officials said while they will not be prevented from entering the country they will be required to self-isolate for two weeks as a precautionary measure.
In a statement the Ministry of Health and Wellness said: “Individuals not ordinarily residents in The Bahamas who have travelled to, through, or from these countries within the last 14 days will not be allowed entry into The Bahamas at this time.
“Individuals who are ordinarily resident (citizens, permanent residents, individuals with work permits) may be permitted to enter The Bahamas, but will be subject to mandatory quarantine for 14 days at their own expense and will undergo screening as mandated by the Ministry of Health and Wellness,” the ministry added.
The rules apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers.
The decision to tighten travel restrictions comes after Health and Wellness Minister Dr Michael Darville on Friday again urged Bahamians to get vaccinated and follow COVID-19 restrictions in preparation of a potential fourth COVID wave.
“In recent weeks, we have seen a substantial and very welcome decrease in the number of COVID-19 infections in The Bahamas,” Dr Darville said. “However, several developments internationally threaten our progress, and require all of us to act with urgency to prepare for another potential surge in cases.
“In the last several weeks, there has been a very significant and sustained increase in cases in both Europe and the United States. We have seen that in our highly connected world, surges in other regions have tended to lead to a surge in our country a few weeks later.”
Dr Darville said these concerns are also compounded by the new Omicron threat, which was declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation last week.
The strain, first detected in South Africa, has already been discovered in several countries, including the UK, Israel and Hong Kong.
It is believed the strain could be more transmissible than the Delta variant, however health experts said it’s still too early to confirm this.
“We have heard about many new variants in the last few months, and many of them disappeared without any significant impact,” Dr Darville added. “However, there are several reasons to be particularly vigilant when it comes to this new variant.
“It has taken off in South Africa, where it was first identified and it appears to be outcompeting other variants. In less than two weeks, it has become the dominant variant in that country. A variant significantly more transmissible than Delta would be a very serious threat indeed.
“We will learn more in the coming days and weeks, but we cannot wait for more information to act with urgency.”
The Bahamas now joins the list of countries that have implemented similar travel guidelines because of the new strain.
Speaking to The Tribune yesterday, former Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis said it’s only a matter of time before the new strain arrives here, warning that now is not the time for Bahamians to let their guards down.
He also called on health officials to increase surveillance of those travelling from the US and UK. His comments came just hours before the new travel policy was announced.
He said: “We believe a travel ban should be placed on those African countries where the Omicron originated. As the USA is the loophole, all travelling from Africa through the US should be closely monitored and also we should increase surveillance. Those European nations, including the UK where the virus has now been identified should also be closely monitored with increased surveillance upon arrival here.
“The government should take this new variant very seriously. We still don’t have lots of data on that because that’s new but we have to increase our surveillance and mask wearing though we don’t know the effects of the new virus.
“We should also consider some sort of travel restrictions from individuals travelling from those affected areas like South Africa or we should aggressively monitor them. We must really be aggressively focused on this virus and COVID in general.”
Dr Minnis also said it’s time for officials to address the country, outlining their plans to combat this new COVID threat.
“I think it’s time that the Competent Authority, Minister of Health or Prime Minister address the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic and what they’re doing with this new strain,” he added. “I have no doubt it will reach The Bahamas, it’s a matter of when, not if.”
In its November 27 dashboard, the Ministry of Health reported 12 new cases, bringing the nation’s total confirmed count to 22,763. The day before saw 17 infections recorded.
There have also been 671 virus related deaths confirmed, while 68 still remain under investigation.