TRINIDAD and Tobago nationals who are currently in China are free to return home as the 14-day travel restriction does not apply to them.
Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh told the Express yesterday that citizens cannot be debarred from returning to their home country.
His clarification came after he initially said on January 30 that all people—regardless of nationality—who visited China would not be allowed to enter T&T unless they spent 14 days in another country after leaving China.
“With immediate effect, once the necessary legal provisions are put in place, and I’ll come to that soon, that persons who are presently living in China or visiting China, regardless of your nationality, will not be allowed entry into Trinidad and Tobago for 14 days after leaving China,” Deyalsingh had said then.
But T&T citizens who visited China can freely return home.
However, they will be asked to quarantine themselves at home for two weeks—which is the incubation period of the deadly coronavirus.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last week there were 120 nationals currently in China.
If a citizen is returning home and visited China and presents himself/herself at Piarco International Airport or other ports of entry with a high fever, then that person will immediately be taken to the Caura Hospital and quarantined there.
All other non-nationals who visited China and did not spend 14 days in another transit country before arriving in Trinidad and Tobago will be debarred entry.
Asked specifically if the 14-day travel restriction applied to citizens of T&T, Deyalsingh told the Express by phone: “No, as I said clearly from day one, we cannot debar a national from coming into the country; it applies to people, visitors of any nationality who were in China, and I repeated that in the Senate again today in response to an urgent question.”
He explained the home quarantine process, saying: “It is a person who has come in—a Trinidadian who has no symptoms and is a good candidate based on medical examination for home isolation. This means not coming into contact with close family members and members of the public and so on. That is being used around the world.”
He was asked to clarify the travel restrictions as the issue was raised yesterday at a Public Administration and Appropriations Committee meeting in Port of Spain to enquire into T&T’s preparedness to tackle the virus, which continues to spread across China.
At the meeting, Chief Medical Officer Roshan Parasram said nationals who are in China can return home.
“The protocol in place is to allow them entry, do the risk assessment through port health, and a lot of the cases we are being notified prior through (the Ministry of) Foreign Affairs if they are to return, so we have things in place beforehand, and once they are low risk, they have no symptoms, we are doing home quarantine for the 14 days or for the remainder of the period if they only have four days left.”
Parasram said a health officer is assigned to each individual and would go in every day to take temperatures and do other checks.
He said if any signs of the virus develop, the individual would be taken into isolation.
However, most of the T&T nationals who were in China at the start of the coronavirus outbreak have opted to remain there.
Parasram said if a large number decide to return, they would have to be quarantined as a group for the duration of the incubation period to ensure they are free from the virus.
“But we have not received any indication that people wanted to return,” he noted.
Parasram also urged the public to sanitise any packages they may have received through online shopping or global shipping.
Questioned about the risk of contracting the virus from mail or shipped items, Parasram said the risk was low, but precautions should still be taken.
“Generally, the risk should be low because of the distance in terms of travel, but of course, any viral pathogen can present itself on fixed surfaces for a length of time. It is a brand new virus and the research would not tell us how long that is at this point,” he noted.
“Because it’s a new virus, we can’t say for sure but bearing in mind it is a respiratory illness, it can vary. It can be from a few hours to a few days. It depends on what environmental conditions it is exposed to and the type of packaging.”
Parasram said online shoppers should wear gloves when opening their packages and sanitise the items.
“Use a sanitising cloth and wipe it clean before you even open it...and wash your hands thoroughly after,” he advised.
The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) however said on Monday that the chances of contracting the virus from mail were slim to none.
“Because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” the CDC said.
Little risk from Carnival
Parasram also sought to calm the public’s fears over whether the virus could reach T&T with increased tourist arrivals for Carnival.
He said Carnival poses little risk as a result of travel restrictions in place.
He said while increased arrivals are expected, they would not be coming from “risky areas”.
“If we had no restrictions in travel from China, I would be very concerned. But because we have a restriction in travel from China, we expect that people coming this season will be people coming from North America and Canada and the United Kingdom.”
He expressed confidence that T&T was in a position to treat with any suspected cases as four beds are available at the Caura Hospital for quarantine.
Thermal screening of passengers arriving into T&T is continuing, he added, with some 34,000 people screened on 457 flights.
So far, no passengers have presented symptoms of the virus.
Nevertheless, one passenger who arrived at Piarco International Airport from Guyana on Monday night, on a journey that originated in Hong Kong, was sent back to Guyana.
Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews said the female passenger was put into isolation, examined and returned to the port of embarkation, in keeping with the restrictions in place.
Parasram said the woman had left China on January 29 and travelled to New York, USA, and then to Guyana before arriving in Trinidad.
He said she was completely asymptomatic and showed no signs of illness.
Parasram said the woman was low risk as she would have been screened and cleared at ports in the US and Guyana.
However, he said the restrictions implemented in T&T must be adhered to.
“We think she was very low risk, but we still want to stick to our travel restrictions,” he said.
As of yesterday, 494 deaths were reported in China, with close to 25,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Some 25 countries have reported cases, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the virus a “global health emergency”.
Returning students showing
Later yesterday in the Senate, at the Red House, Port of Spain, Deyalsingh said three students had entered Trinidad and Tobago from China in the past three weeks.
Two came in two weeks ago and one came into the country last week.
So far, none of the students has shown any of the symptoms associated with the coronavirus.
The students’ entry predated the imposition of the 14-day restriction on people coming from China. He said anyone coming into T&T after the announcement of the travel restrictions will be subject to quarantine and/or isolation.
He said the T&T national who came into the country last Friday was in self-isolation and has been since Friday.
He said people who are low risk are put into self-isolation, instead of institutional isolation, a protocol which is being followed in the United Kingdom, USA, Canada and other countries.
Independent Senator Hazel Thompson-Ahye expressed concern about what self-isolation meant, in instances where the student was interacting with a parent who is working outside of the environment.
Deyalsingh said in this particular case, the student lives with only one person and the risk of transmission among many family members is close to zero.
“And self-isolation means that they keep a distance from anybody else, normally three feet, and close contact means close contact for 15 minutes and more,” he said.
In the context of the coronavirus, close contact means that you should not be in close proximity under three feet (0.9 metres) for 15 minutes or more, he said, adding these conditions were being applied to this particular student.
—additional reporting by Ria Taitt
How to protect yourself
• Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based sanitiser.
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
• Cough and sneeze into the crook of your elbow if you do not have a tissue
• Avoid close contact with people who have flu-like symptoms
• Thoroughly cook meat and eggs.