By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
FORMER Health Minister Dr Duane Sands says The Bahamas is not testing nearly enough people for COVID-19 and he does not support re-opening the country’s borders to people not tested for the virus.
He said the country is testing at a rate lower than 122 other countries and called for random sample testing of the population.
He called for a deliberate and cautious re-opening during his budget communication in the House of Assembly yesterday.
“Let me say it categorically, without a robust and consistent ability to test and definitively screen, isolate and track, if we take our eye off the ball and lessen our vigilance, we can and should expect a second wave of COVID-19 in The Bahamas,” the Elizabeth MP said. “If that happens, I dread even considering the potential economic peril.”
The Minnis administration will re-open the country to commercial flights on July 1. A decision on whether tourists will be required to get a COVID-19 negative test before entry has not been made. However, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar has suggested efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are preferable to requiring a PCR test in part because the latter has time-related limitations.
Dr Sands said: “Yes, we need to restore our economy, but we should not, cannot play Russian roulette. Yes, we should open, but we must do so deliberately, cautiously and carefully and we should do so with data. I do not support a policy that requires Bahamian citizens and residents to be tested that does not place the same level of scrutiny on visitors. If we test any, we test all. And we must test more than we are doing now. That said, if we open, we test, even if we must move heaven and earth to build the capacity.”
Dr Sands resigned as health minister last month over his actions related to the entry of six American permanent residents who brought COVID-19 test supplies to the country, but were not tested for the virus until the day after their arrival.
While he was health minister, Dr Sands defended the country’s COVID-19 testing rates, clashing at times in the House of Assembly with Official Opposition Leader Philip “Brave” Davis who argued there needed to be wider testing.
In early April, he told Parliament the country had a limited test supply capability.
“Quite simply, there is a limited supply of test kits, swabs and human resources in the National Reference Laboratory,” Dr Sands said at the time.
Yesterday, Dr Sands said based on recommendations from experts, the country should be doing 600 COVID-19 tests per day––far more than what is currently done.
He noted that Harvard experts have recommended 152 tests per 100,000 people as the benchmark for safe reopening of a country.
He said: “On May 8, 2020, we had completed 1,548 tests; 646 tests over 31 days; 22 tests per day, 3.6 percent of target. By no measure is this an adequate amount of testing. Let me say, I understand the limitations and challenges. Believe me, I understand the challenges.
“As we open up Eleuthera, Exuma and other islands, let us be mindful that we are not doing so blindly. Surveillance must be undergirded with testing. Many carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic or have atypical symptoms. We should therefore define a rate of random sampling in all communities of RT PCR and antibody testing. While most of the tests will be collected in New Providence and Grand Bahama, every community should have enhanced surveillance and testing.
“In order to position our tourism product as safe, staff should be mandated to engage in courses on safe COVID practices and undergo periodic testing based on bulk purchasing of test capacity through a consortium of labs. The closer we get to the goal of 152 tests per 100,000 or 608 tests per day, 18,000 per month, the stronger the appeal. It may take us several months to reach that level of testing. The programmatic cost of lab equipment, reagents, human resources, swabs, transportation, storage, IT and interpretation could realistically be as much as $200 to $400 per test.
“At the $400 per test benchmark, the cost would be approximately $7 million per month. At $200 per test, $3.5 million. Some of the cost would be recovered from private payers. Ostensibly, The Bahamas would generate the data. Clearly there are ways to offset these costs further, particularly if increased testing leads to safety and less risky economic activity. Persons wishing to participate in the economy would agree to testing and or vaccination once or if available. Hotel visitors, restaurant patrons would also have the comfort of knowing that their wait staff, housekeeping and casino staff are laboratory confirmed to be COVID-free.”
When asked last month if officials identified a target number of tests to complete each day, Dr Merceline Dahl-Regis, coordinator of the government’s COVID-19 response, did not answer directly, saying at the time that the number of tests being performed––about 36 per day––was adequate.