NAJ head says optional coronavirus testing for visitors could have devastating results

Senior staff reporter

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

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CONCERNS are being raised over the optional testing of visitors to the island for the novel coronavirus, as the country moves to fully reopen its borders on June 15.

Head of the Nurses' Association of Jamaica Carmen Johnson is contending that while “we cannot continue to hide from COVID-19”, undue burden will be placed on the island's health system and workers should there be an outbreak resulting from incoming passenger traffic.

Pointing to Jamaicans returning to the island under the Government's controlled re-entry programme who have so far tested positive for the feared coronavirus, Johnson said that there is likely to be a similar occurrence with tourists being allowed into the country.

“Bear in mind that our nationals will be moving among these non-nationals when they come, because you will have persons working with them. So it would be good to know that at least before coming to the island they [tested] negative [for the virus]. One of the greatest challenges with not testing them is that our health system could become overburdened,” Johnson told the Jamaica Observer on Monday.

Her comment came a day after Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that the country's air and sea ports — which were ordered closed to incoming passengers on March 24 to curtail the spread of the virus locally — will be open to non-nationals in two weeks.

The prime minister said, too, that the visitors will not be tested for the virus or be quarantined unless they showed symptoms.

He said the country is incapable of testing every non-national who will be arriving on or after June 15.

The prime minister was speaking at Sunday's COVID-19 virtual press conference at Jamaica House in St Andrew.

“Not knowing how many out of 100 who come in are positive is dangerous. The multiplying effect of those 10 that might have it out of the 100 moving around our nationals, and our nationals moving amongst their family members and their family members moving amongst their co-workers, moving around in their communities, can be devastating,” the NAJ president said.

“Not knowing simply means that it is now going to put us at a greater risk of having more persons coming with the virus and getting sick. Our hope is that, as we seek to admit non-nationals, that maybe the virus has lost some of its potency and so the ill health that we have seen with those we would have had in our hospitals and from other jurisprudence, that they will not be experiencing that,” she added.

At the same time, Johnson said nurses at the community level will continue to be overburdened with the influx of tourists, because the virus is likely to be around for at least another two years.

“They are going to, again, be under undue stress and burden. And why are they going to be under burden? They will have to continue doing contact tracing and our hope is that we won't have these community outbreaks, so that we'll again have to shut down communities and divert resources. Each time we do that the regular services that must be offered — the preventative and curative services by primary care — have got to be pushed back or scaled down in order to address the immediate needs of the COVID-19 response,” Johnson stated.

She said that the association would find comfort in knowing that the admittance of non-nationals means that they would present certificates indicating their COVID-19-free status.

And though noting that the virus could be contracted at any point between testing and travel, she said that the risk of having individuals coming into the island with the virus would be less, and that authorities would have a clearer picture of what they are up against.

Holness had said that the Government would be seeking to implement new controlled entry protocols that will be based on a risk assessment of the countries from which people are seeking to enter Jamaica.

He said countries that have similar management and profile results for the epidemic, such as spread, death rate, infection prevention, control measures, and contact tracing protocols, could constitute a “travel bubble” that would determine the protocols to be applied to entry from those states. Individuals seeking to enter Jamaica from countries within the travel bubble, he said, “may not need to be tested on arrival”.

Travel bubbles, also called travel bridges or corona corridors, do away with that waiting period for a select group of travellers from certain countries where the coronavirus has been contained. In a travel bubble, a set of countries agrees to open their borders to each other, but keep borders closed to all other countries.

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