As the U.S. continues to enforce strict travel restrictions on travelers from China over the coronavirus outbreak, an increasing number of Caribbean nations are also doing the same, while taking steps to screen arriving passengers at their ports of entry.
In recent days, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Dominica, and Trinidad and Tobago have all announced China-related travel bans, even though there are no direct commercial flights between mainland China and their nations.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the island of Hispaniola, have not made any official announcements about travel restrictions, but over the weekend both countries prevented Chinese visitors on a private jet from getting off the plane. Authorities in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia also prevented Miami-based Carnival Corporation's AIDA cruise ship AIDAPerla from docking at its port of Castries after it was reported that 14 passengers were being treated for upper respiratory issues.
The ship's 4,384 passengers were also denied the right to dock in St. John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda, but were later received with no problem by authorities in St. Maarten and Martinique, AIDA Cruises said in a statement.
So far, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Caribbean or Latin America, and all of the suspicious cases have been ruled out, said Marcos Espinal, director of the department of communicable diseases and environmental determinants of health with the Pan American Health Organization.
As of Tuesday the coronavirus had killed at least 427 people and infected more than 20,000 globally.
Espinal said health ministers representing the 15-member Caribbean Community, known as CARICOM, held an emergency meeting Monday along with representatives of PAHO - the World Health Organization's regional office for the Americas - and the Caribbean Public Health Agency to discuss the outbreak and preventive measures being taken.
"Every day we have daily conferences," Espinal said of his staff. "We have offices in Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti, where we have deployed international staff advising the countries. ... We are making preparations for these countries to be able to test for this virus."
While he acknowledged that some health systems in the region are weaker than others, many are already testing for influenza, which kills more people than the coronavirus.
"We should not create a panic," Espinal said. "We have to make sure that people get the proper information."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu has already killed 10,000 people just across the U.S. so far this season, while sickening 19 million people and causing 180,000 hospitalizations.
The coronavirus has had far less of an impact.
"It's important to realize that this is a disease in which 80% of the cases are mild or moderate," Espinal said about the coronavirus. "Only 20% of the cases, from what we are observing, develop severity and signs of very difficult issues like respiratory difficulties, high fever, huge bouts of coughing. In that case the country needs to first rule out influenza. ... If the country doesn't have the capability to do the testing, they can isolate that person.
"The good thing is if we provide the care that is needed ... with the proper infection prevention and controls, the person can possibly get out," he said. "What we are seeing with this virus is that the mortality rate is really low compared to (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)."
MERS, which was linked to touching infected camels, and SARS, which was thought to have spread from bats, are both known to cause severe respiratory problems in people.
Still, that hasn't slowed the panic among Caribbean nationals or their governments, which announced tightened borders after the World Health Organization last week declared the coronavirus a global health emergency.
In Cuba, for example, the government is checking travelers and has quarantined people with symptoms coming from China or that have been in China in the last two weeks. But none of the cases has been confirmed with the disease, a ministry of public health official said on Cuban state TV. The patients were admitted and isolated in at least one hospital in Havana.
"Twenty-six countries in the Americas have instituted travel restrictions including the USA," said Dr. Duane Sands, the Bahamas' health minister. As of last week, more than 40 countries around the world had announced travel restrictions related to the coronavirus and individuals traveling from China, according to the International Air Transport Association.
The Bahamas, which is still recovering from Hurricane Dorian, does have the health structure to address the virus should it hit its shores, Sands said, "though obviously we would prefer not."
Jamaica Health Minister Christopher Tufton said while they have one person in the hospital under observation and several others in quarantine, "none meet (the) case definition for the virus."
"We remained concern but are taking steps," Tufton said, confirming his island-nation's travel ban.
According to local media reports, Jamaica on Saturday turned back 19 Chinese nationals who traveled to the island for vacation. The incident occurred just hours after Bahamian authorities also prevented a private jet with Chinese nationals aboard from landing on Friday night.
That flight then went on to the Dominican Republic, where the crew was allowed to refuel but could not stay. After deciding to fly next door to Haiti, they were again prevented from disembarking. Haitian authorities assigned police officers to guard the plane until it took off for Portugal after 7 a.m. Saturday.
The decisions by nations to restrict Chinese travelers have triggered concerns about discrimination, with some lauding countries' bans while others chastise them.
"What's happening here is serious," tweeted Genson Jean Baptiste, a Haitian national. "The Chinese are undergoing a terrible stigmatization in the world. Authorities in some countries must act responsibly. This cannot continue like this."
Espinal said while countries are sovereign and can implement whatever restrictions they like, "WHO does not recommend restrictions on mobility because we know all of the implications of it."
"You don't want to stigmatize people, in this case Chinese," he said. "One reason we don't recommend this type of measure is sometimes it backfires. If the person incubating the virus enters illegally into a country, it might magnify and spread more disease than someone who is detected at an entry point, with few questions and a fever."
(Miami Herald staff writers Taylor Dolven and Nora Gamez Torres contributed to this report.)
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