Passengers landing at the Piarco airport are being scanned the moment they step off their aircraft. This is to guard against the spread of a viral outbreak from China which, on Tuesday, was detected in a patient in Washington State, USA, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh told Newsday.
At least six people have died and 300 infected in Asia with the virus initially identified in China in clusters of people suffering from pneumonia.
While the coronavirus seems to have originated in meat/animals at a market in Wuhan City, China, Deyalsingh was concerned it now seems to be transmitted from human to human.
"The situation is evolving rapidly, literally on an hourly basis."
He said as a novel or new virus in humans, it has the potential for unforeseen consequences, such that countries like TT must mount a robust response.
"As of today, we have started fever screening at the airport using our thermal scanners. We are targeting flights from North America, the UK and Panama.
"Anyone with a temperature of 37.2 degrees Celsius or above will be pulled aside for questioning, especially on their travel history.
"If in the opinion of port health a person needs further examination, they will be quarantined and our infectious disease protocol will kick in."
This will include the taking of blood samples, contact tracing and provision of medical treatment.
Newsday asked how the thermal screening is done.
"It is a hand-held device. We go to the bridge, so when you come off the aircraft we scan you as soon as you step off the plane."
Deyalsingh said the devices have been in TT since 2014, for use only in emergencies or public-health threats.
"We have enough for use, but I have also given instructions to the permanent secretary to acquire more units. I will go to the airport on Thursday to see the whole thing in action and do an assessment of it."
He said people should practise the usual health protocols such as regular hand-washing and visiting a doctor if one has a fever.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram told Newsday the ministry has ramped up its usual monitoring of TT’s ports of entry, especially the Piarco airport and the Ports of Port of Spain and Cedros.
“We are strengthening the points of entry and isolating any cases that may occur. TT is keeping a very close watch, for our bases to be covered.”
Parasram said anyone at an entry port to TT is subject to port health officers, and if they show symptoms will then be passed on to medical officers for questioning.
He said the ministry is training physicians about the virus, and identifying potential quarantine areas in hospitals if needed.
“The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said there is no need for restrictions on travel and trade.” He said the WHO is monitoring the international situation on an hour-by-hour basis.
“We in TT have a bit of a buffer,” he said, saying most travellers from China must first pass through airports such as New York and San Francisco, places which stringently screen travellers’ health.
“Our risk at this point of a case coming out of China will be very low.”
Parasram warned of the more immediate threat of influenza.
“We are very cognisant of the fact we are in the influenza season, so get your vaccines especially if you are in a high-risk group.” He said the influenza vaccine is three-fold to cover the H1N1 and H3N2 Type A viruses plus the Type B influenza virus.
“If you are ill, don’t go to work or to school to spread it.” Otherwise, he urged everyone to practise good hygiene.
He promised the ministry will escalate its anti-flu activities at Carnival, where an influx of people to TT plus the gathering of people in large groups facilitates the spread of viruses.
“If you are travelling to China, be extra vigilant. Avoid the province where the outbreak has occurred and people who have been there.”
Parasram offered general advice against viral infections. “Know your symptoms, have your vaccine and seek help at the first sign of symptoms.” He also urged people to ensure food they buy at Carnival events is prepared under sanitary conditions.
He promised to keep the media updated on the situation.
Parasram said symptoms of the new Chinese virus were like those of the common cold, namely sore throat, stuffiness, coughing.
He said WHO has likened the virus to the SARS virus and the Mediterranean Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Parasram said WHO has determined it is spread from person to person.
The US Center for Disease Control and prevention said older people and those with underlying conditions are most vulnerable. It advised travellers to Wutan to avoid sick people, living or dead animals, and animal markets.