PAHO concerned about COVID-19 tests in face of US order

Air travel is being significantly impacted by COVID-19.

Air travel is being significantly impacted by COVID-19.

EL Nuevo Herald File

Regional public health officials are concerned that a new requirement for U.S.-bound travelers overseas could lead countries to divert desperately needed COVID-19 tests from locals to foreign travelers.

The Pan American Health Organization has received multiple requests for more testing kits from nations in Latin America and the Caribbean since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that all travelers will need to show a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country, said Dr. Ciro Ugarte, a director with the U.N. health agency.

“It is a situation that may force some countries to redirect some of the considerable proportion of testing equipment and laboratory capacity to international travelers,” he said. “The situation may particularly affect the Caribbean; several countries and territories in the Caribbean have indicated…they may face some diagnostic stock-out.”

The CDC rule went into effect Tuesday and calls for travelers to show a negative PCR or rapid antigen test taken within 72 hours of travel or proof of recovery from the virus. The United Kingdom and Canada are also requiring travelers to show a negative PCR lab test to enter.

The tighter restrictions come as health officials in all three countries confirm the detection of new, highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus. In the Americas, at least 16 countries have confirmed cases of variants showing up in positive COVID-19 patients.

U.S. officials have said the travel measure, which comes with a recommendation to quarantine upon arrival, is aimed at preventing the more contagious variants from further spreading in the United States.

During a regional update of the COVID-19 situation with journalists Wednesday, PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne said the Americas region had surpassed more than 1 million deaths related to COVID-19.

A surge in infections is placing growing pressure on hospital capacity not just in some U.S. states, but across the region, including in the Caribbean, where some smaller countries are seeing a rapid acceleration in cases, she said..

“By contrast, most countries in Central America—except for Honduras and Guatemala— are seeing a decrease in the virus,” added Etienne.

Still, the lack of testing capacity remains a concern, especially in countries where cases remain on the rise.

“Many countries in the region have limited laboratory capacity and diagnostic resources,” Ugarte said.

Ugarte did not say how many countries had contacted PAHO for assistance or whether the agency, which has helped expand PCR lab testing throughout the region, had the ability to meet the increased demand.

He reiterated PAHO’s position that PCR lab tests, considered the gold standard for detecting COVID-19, shouldn’t be used on healthy people going on vacation. He also emphasized that rapid antigen tests are less accurate and shouldn’t be used on asymptomatic individuals who can test negative when in fact they are positive for the virus.

After months of limited testing, countries across the region are now seeing an expansion in laboratories offering tests to accommodate travelers. Testing facilities have gone up in hotels and in resorts, and at airports.

While some welcome the expansion, others echoed Ugarte’s concerns. On Twitter Wednesday, for example, a number of Cubans worried about the availability of tests for them, given an ongoing outbreak on the island.

Ugarte said PAHO is asking the CDC to inform the public of the health rationale for the order and “whether this order is likely to be reconsidered or maybe reversed in the immediate future.”

“We are in close contact with all member states and also the CDC in order to advise as we can,” he said.

A spokesperson for the CDC said the goal of the new testing requirement is to reduce infection in the travel corridor and prevent the spread of infections and transmission at destinations.

“Well-timed viral testing is a powerful tool in this regard, and even with some acknowledged limitations, it is one of several important layers in our battle against SARS-CoV-2,” the spokesperson said. “It is well established that infected asymptomatic travelers have been an important part of this pandemic.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. urged Americans to avoid travel. The CDC has also echoed that message.

“CDC’s long-standing guidance is to avoid non-essential travel during the pandemic. The emergence of more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants makes this especially urgent now,” the spokesperson added.

Miami Herald reporter Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.