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By Elesha George

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All visitors to Antigua and Barbuda are now subject to mandatory testing for Covid-19, although no firm decision has been made on how the US$100 fee for the test will be enforced.

In a statement to the nation on Wednesday, Prime Minister Gaston Browne declared that “no one is exempt from them now, nor will they be at any time in the future … everyone who enters the country from abroad will be tested and quarantined or isolated as appropriate while this pandemic continues”.

The change comes after health and quarantine authorities confirmed 39 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, all of which were imported by air travel within the last few days.

Those infected are said to be “a mixture of nationals and tourists”, taking into account nationals who are also considered to be tourists.

Under the old policy, international visitors were all expected to be tested, while returning nationals and residents were placed into government quarantine facilities or were approved for self-quarantine.

As a result of the government’s no-restriction policy, nationals returned from areas including the Dominican Republic and the United States, which are noted hotspots for Covid-19.

Nineteen of the nationals and residents who were recently repatriated from the Dominican Republic tested positive, while other cases arrived on an American Airlines flight.

Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Rhonda Sealey-Thomas shared that not everyone on the latter flight had been tested and so they have begun contact tracing for travellers and others who would have been in close contact with these positive cases.

An additional 30 to 40 samples have since been sent to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) in Trinidad. The results were expected to return yesterday but no information was forthcoming up to press time.

In addition, some of these patients who were self-quarantining are feared to have already exposed themselves to others in the community, with the CMO admitting that she is always concerned that persons trusted to remain at home will not do so.

Apart from one case, which she noted they had “a couple of issues” with, Sealey-Thomas said they were easily able to identify the other cases.

“When I got the result initially, I wasn’t sure where all 39 were so we immediately started doing our checks and it was very easy for the persons who came in on the Dominican Republic flight because a decision was made that they would all be placed in quarantine …  the challenge with the others is that they were in quarantine in various locations – some at home, some in hotels, so we had to identify who was in what location,” she said.

Some of those infected have since been quarantined and isolated at the government’s facility at Hawksbill Hotel.Browne stressed that none of these new cases require hospitalisation and that they will not be released into the community until they all test negative.

 “The remaining individuals are in hotel properties which are equipped with facilities to isolate, monitor and treat these individuals who tested positive for Covid. The staff at these hotels are also fully trained to deal with such guests who will not be allowed to venture outside of the hotel’s compound and who will also be under constant medical surveillance,” Browne said.

He deemed the detection and quarantining of the new cases as a “learning experience” and said it demonstrated “the effectiveness of the procedures that have been established and are being scrupulously implemented at our ports of entry”.

The prime minister believes that none of these cases is a threat to the community at this time, adding that with the “identification, training and quarantine process, the ministry of health is containing and treating affected persons”.

Confirmation of the new cases came as a shock to the nation, particularly as Health Minister Molwyn Joseph had declared, two days earlier, that the country was “essentially Covid-free”. Joseph claimed that no visitor tested positive for the virus and that those in quarantine exhibited no symptoms of Covid.

In addition, the latest Covid-19 dashboard published on June 22, indicated that there were no results pending and that no one had been placed in self-isolation.

The health minister later acknowledged the error with the self-quarantine numbers but made no mention of the 109 samples that had been sent to CARPHA.

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