Tue | Apr 20, 2021

STRANDED! - Travellers to Canada in limbo in Ja as labs overwhelmed due to new testing requirement for COVID-19

Published:Saturday | January 9, 2021 | 12:09 AMNadine Wilson-Harris/Staff Reporter

Hundreds of vacationers hoping to return to Canada are now stranded in Jamaica after new rules requiring them to show proof of a negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test in order to enter the country came into effect on January 7.

All travellers are required to have this proof in hand at the time of boarding, regardless of citizenship. Failure to comply will mean an automatic denial of boarding by the air carrier operating the flight to Canada.

Canadian citizen Denise Mendez is among those who are affected by the new policy after she decided to visit the island on December 30 to see her ailing mother.

“It was my mother’s 70th birthday and my mom has Parkinson, so me and my sisters said you know, this is a milestone for her and so we said you know we kind of wanted to celebrate this,” she said.

Mendez, who is scheduled to leave Jamaica on a Caribbean Airlines flight on Sunday morning, said the new requirements were announced while she was in Jamaica. Since being informed, she tried to set an appointment with Microlabs Limited, but she said the next available date for testing according to their website is in February.

“I need to get back to work and so I am trying to do everything I can to get back to work,” said the frustrated office manager.

Mendez said when she made contact with the Canadian Consulate on Thursday, she was told that several other persons are experiencing a similar dilemma.

According to permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health & Wellness, Dunstan Bryan, an estimated 2,000 Canadians are schedule to return to Canada between now and next week. However, several of these persons have been having a difficult time finding an approved private lab to conduct the required tests due to the demand.

Only two private labs have been approved by the Ministry of Health & Wellness to offer PCR testing for COVID-19 in Jamaica. They are Caribbean Genetics (CARIGEN) and Microlabs Limited.

Bryan said that with this latest development, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) and the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) have been putting in place options for persons to get tested privately.

“The private labs are making themselves ready to provide these services,” he said.

President of the PSOJ, Keith Duncan, said the changes in the Canadian travel requirements were brought to the attention of the organisation by the JHTA and consultations were immediately held with the Medical Association of Jamaica, the Ministry of Health & Wellness and the private laboratories.

“As this change was sudden and not all travellers were aware and turnaround on these tests are 48-72 hours, travellers may need to make adjustments to their travel dates,” Duncan advised.

OVERWHELMED WITH DEMAND

Currently, Microlabs Limited send their samples to CARIGEN for testing, thereby making this facility the only approved private lab doing PCR testing in the country. Chief analyst at CARIGEN, Compton Beecher, said they are overwhelmed.

“I can’t give you numbers, but the demand has been really great and what we’ve had to do is adjust our numbers a whole lot to accommodate a lot of the travellers,” he told The Gleaner.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that throughout this whole crisis, there has just been a worldwide demand for the materials needed to do the testing and so whereas we have the capacity in terms of instrumentation, in terms of how much samples we can do, the materials that are needed is what is trickling down to the different labs,” he said.

Beecher said that CARIGEN has moved from processing between 150 and 170 samples per week, to 600 samples this week. Microlabs Limited acts as a collection partner and collects the samples, while they do the testing.

“It is a lot of stress, but we recognise that it rests on us basically to try and help out the tourists and so we have been doing what we can,” said Beecher.