Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

The Puerto Rico Health Department plans to charge fines of $300 to travelers who enter Puerto Rico without presenting a negative COVID-19 molecular test (PCR) result and who do not take the test on the island through a website to which a passenger will access, on his or her initiative, to pay.

“As for paying the fines, the technological mechanism already exists, which is through,” said epidemiologist Miriam Ramos -the Health Department official in charge of monitoring travelers- in an interview with El Nuevo Día. “Passengers access the website, there are some fairly easy steps, and they can pay the fine,” she added. The new measure, which goes into effect tomorrow, stems from Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s Executive Order 028, and Administrative Order 499 by Health Secretary-designate Carlos Mellado. The fine will be finally applied if a traveler does not comply with the requirement to take a local test within 48 hours after being asked to.

But the Health Department could not explain yesterday what would happen if a traveler decides not to enter the website and does not pay. Ramos could not answer, for example, whether the system would have information of some payment method required in advance from the traveler so that payment does not depend solely on the will of passengers.

“I can’t answer your question because I don’t have the details of the scenario you are describing to me,” said the epidemiologist to this newspaper.

“If a person fails to comply with the administrative fine and does not comply with the executive order, there are other additional sanctions that this person would incur,” she argued.

The traveler would also be referred to the Office of Health Investigations.

No details on laboratories

Although the administrative order establishing the new measures has been signed since April 19, the president of the Association of Clinical Laboratories, Alexis Amador, said that as until yesterday there had not been a formal meeting between the sector representatives and the Health Department to discuss logistics. The order instructs laboratories to give priority to travelers coming for testing.

“We are having conversations with SARAFS (Auxiliary Secretariat for Health Facility Regulation and Accreditation) about the logistics,” Amador said in an interview with El Nuevo Día.

Laboratories raise two main concerns. Firstly, Amador warned that the impact of thousands of travelers coming to get a molecular test in the facilities throughout the island must be carefully monitored, not necessarily because of lacking or not enough tests or reagents to assist that population, but because of the human resources available to process them, as well as changes in the average waiting time for the results.

According to data from the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust, the number of people coming for molecular testing had dropped in the first months of the year, to one of its lowest points during the week of March 14, with 28,193. That figure has been on the rise since then, in line with the dramatic increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases reported in Puerto Rico.

“Over the last few weeks, we have been doing more than 50,000, the last two to three weeks, with higher positivity rates,” Amador said. When grouping the number of tests handled by laboratories across the island, the weekly capacity is above 60,000, while assuring that there are no current difficulties in acquiring the reagents for the analysis of the samples.

“We cannot relax because of that, not because we have that amount of tests available we have to go crazy or not take measures. We always need a cap to have a result between 24 to 48 hours”, he explained, since human and technical equipment is not unlimited.

Amador added that among the thousands of tests that laboratories perform every week, they have some travelers, including residents of the island who travel abroad and upon their return seek to comply with prevention measures, although this number is not compiled in solid data.

With a cap of 60,000, “if you add 30,000 or 40,000 passengers weekly, we could have difficulty handling that volume,” he said. And that, he added, is important “if we have a surge (of cases) on the island”. Puerto Rico has about 800 clinical laboratories, including 600 in the community, as well as reference and hospital laboratories, among others.

Until Sunday, so far in April, 333,876 travelers had arrived on the island, of which 169,226 (51 percent) did not present a negative PCR test result upon arrival. Of the total number of travelers, the figure has exceeded 15,000 arrivals in a single day.

The president of the Association of Clinical Laboratories also recalled that molecular tests require individuals to present a medical order at the laboratory, but it is unclear what type of document travelers will submit. The administrative order grants a waiver to any traveler to be able to undergo the molecular test without the need for a referral, but Amador indicated that the referral and the medical order are different documents.

On that matter, Ramos said that Health developed a document that will be associated with the traveler’s declaration, although by press time the final version was not ready.

“The traveler will be able to present it at the laboratory, it identifies the traveler and the test to be done. This document will be exclusive for travelers”, she explained.

Concerns about the control of travelers increases when considering, for example, big events such as the “Guaya Guaya Fest” and the “National Zalsa Day”, held in Orlando this weekend, with thousands of people were seen crowded together, without physical distancing and no masks, while an unknown number of individuals who traveled from Puerto Rico to that city to participate were expected to return to the island.

About this situation, National Guard Adjutant General José Reyes said yesterday that no special protocols or measures would be activated at the airports for flights and passengers coming from the city of Orlando, Florida.

“We continue with the medical screening at the airports, with rigorous questions associated with the symptoms of COVID-19, with the requirement to bring the molecular test (negative), with the requirement to fill out the travelers’ declaration,” he said and added that the same measures will apply to all travelers, regardless of the place of origin.

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