'False sense of security'

'False sense of security'

PAHO says requiring incoming travellers test for COVID-19 non-effective

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, October 15, 2020

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THE Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has cautioned tourism-dependent countries in the region that there could be a false sense of security among their populations, with the testing of incoming travellers for COVID-19.

Speaking at the organisation's weekly virtual media briefing yesterday, PAHO's Director of Health Emergencies Dr Ciro Ugarte stressed that measures, such as testing of incoming travellers, generate a false sense of security.

“When you get a test and that test has been taken several days before, the results are good for the day when the test was taken, not the day that you received the result. So many things may have happened between the moment you got tested,” he said.

Dr Ugarte said this ultimately leads to non-effective and unsustainable use of resources. However, he said, too, governments face challenges when they depart from protocols that citizens believe protect them.

“The community feels that they are secure when the incoming travellers have been tested, but that is a false sense of security and are not cost-effective, and would require a thorough communication exercise,” he advised.

He said the advice from PAHO is to neither rely solely on quarantine nor testing to resume non-essential travel. The director of health emergencies explained that this guidance was formulated by PAHO last week, after the ministers of health of the Americas met and requested a specific document with recommendations for non-essential travel.

He said the document is now being used by several countries to adjust their requirements for international travellers and tourists.

Dr Ugarte said that, with the reopening of borders in Caribbean countries, governments are accepting the risk that comes with inbound travellers.

“Relying on testing to stimulate tourism presents major and insubstantial limitations of biological, epidemiological, and also legal nature,” he said, noting that PAHO is cognisant of the need for tourism-dependent states to reactivate their economies and has, therefore, advised considering a focus on monitoring the health status of incoming tourists for the first two weeks of their stay, in partnership with the tourism industry.

In the advice issued on October 5, PAHO recommended that international travellers should not be “regarded as contacts of COVID-19 cases and hence not be subjected to quarantine measures in the destination country”. It said, conducting or requiring COVID-19-related testing of prospective or incoming international travellers as a tool to mitigate international spread is not supported by current available testing technology and test performance.

Last week, the Jamaican Government announced that pretesting for visitors from high-risk countries would remain in place, but that it will now accept antigen rapid testing results alongside polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results.

Health minister Dr Christopher Tufton had previously indicated that the pretesting requirements could be removed, based on the ministry's recommendations to Cabinet. He said this was being considered given that there have been significant improvements in the infection rate in the United States, for example, one of the countries for which the regime was implemented for people — travelling to Jamaica.

Addressing yesterday's briefing, PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne said that while the PCR testing remains the gold standard for accuracy, there is now an affordable, reliable diagnostic test which could be the game-changer for the Americas.

“If distributed widely, this new test will transform our COVID response,” she said.

Dr Etienne explained that the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator has now facilitated an affordable and reliable diagnostic test that can be performed anywhere.

“By providing results quickly, the new test empowers front line health workers to better manage cases by isolating patients to prevent further spread, and to begin treatment immediately,” Dr Etienne stated.

She said, while awaiting PCR results, people can spread the virus in their families, communities and places of work.

The director said PAHO can provide access to hundreds of thousands of these tests via its strategic supply fund, with millions more expected in the coming weeks, and that with support from WHO, the organisation will be providing the diagnostic tests free of cost.

As of October 13, there have been more than 18 million COVID-19 cases and more than 590,000 deaths reported in the region.

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