FILE: Passengers enter the Piarco International Airport for health screenings by Port Health officials. (Photo by BRENT PINHEIRO)
BRENT PINHEIRO

Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh announced yesterday, T&T had recorded its first imported case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant of concern. Since then, government officials have blamed the airline and the passenger for breaching protocols, saying that local authorities weren’t at fault. The traveller’s identity has not been revealed but, here’s what we know about the situation so far…

Where did it come from?

Details remain limited at the moment. According to the Health Minister, a female passenger presented a positive PCR test while checking in at the JFK International Airport and boarded a flight to Panama. Panama does not require fully vaccinated travellers seeking to enter the country to provide a negative COVID test, however, they must fill out an Electronic Health Affidavit before boarding.

For passengers in transit, the Copa Airlines website states: “If you are in transit through Panama and will be staying within the international area, you must have the required COVID-19 test for your final destination, performed at your point of origin.”

Local health officials say in Panama she presented a negative antigen test to Copa Airlines and was accepted for travel to Trinidad, despite T&T only recognising RT-PCR tests as valid. It remains unclear when and where that antigen test was done.

CM314’s flight path from Panama to Trinidad. (Image courtesy Flightradar24.com)

Copa Airlines flight 314 landed at the Piarco International Airport on December 9th at 12:53 am, carrying the COVID-19 positive woman and dozens of passengers. There, she presented herself for health screening by Port Health officials. Health screenings include checking a traveller’s temperature, observation for signs of COVID-19, validation of a negative PCR test and vaccination card or certificate (where applicable), as well as an interview by a health officer.

According to Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, during this screening process officials noticed her positive PCR test and immediately placed her into isolation. The County Medical Officer of Health was also notified. A sample was taken and sent to the University of the West Indies for genetic sequencing. The team detected the variant of concern sometime between Thursday and Monday.

Where is the patient now?

Minister Deyalsingh says the patient is being housed in a step-down facility. She will stay there until cleared by the authorities.

What about the people onboard the flight?

14 people have been placed in home quarantine. These are all the people who were seated two rows in front two rows behind and two rows on either side of the passenger, as per WHO protocol. All have presented negative PCR tests thus far and, all 14 are fully vaccinated. No information has been released about the passengers on the flight from JFK to Panama. 

Copa Airlines requires masks on board all flights, which can be removed for eating or drinking. There are no social distancing measures onboard i.e., middle seats aren’t blocked, although limited movement is allowed through the cabin.

Will there be consequences?

Both the National Security Ministry and the Health Ministry are currently conducting investigations, after that, they will have to say which parties are liable and what the fines will be. If it is determined that the patient uploaded a false document to the TT Travel Pass website, she could be facing a fine of $350,000 and 6 months in jail. It is not yet known if Copa Airlines is culpable in any way.

Why didn’t the TTravel Pass system flag the traveller?

The website requires the user to self-certify their details; there is a penalty for purposely uploading incorrect data. Incoming travellers must upload several documents and provide personal information such as name, passport number and address. In the health details section, you must answer a series of mandatory questions and upload a negative PCR test (see image below).

The TTravel Pass Health Questionnaire.

In an attempt to test the system as a demonstration for this article, I tried to avoid uploading any test results, but the system would display an error message. There is no way to get to the next step without uploading a file of some sort but the system doesn’t seem to be able to differentiate between a negative or positive test result. The system does warn you that there is a penalty for uploading false documents.

Warning popup on the TTravel Pass website.

Having gone through this process last month, I know first-hand that once you upload documents, the system allows you to move on to the next step. Once you complete all the steps, it automatically assigns you a QR code that you must present upon request. The only time a manual check comes into play is either at the airport check-in counter or at the Port Health check at Piarco International.

Is there a risk to the general population?

No. The ministry says this is an imported case and there is no risk to the general population. However, it is a reminder to get vaccinated and keep following the health protocols.