[UPDATED] Health Ministry: Trinidad and Tobago’s first omicron case breached travel protocols

Terrence Deyalsingh -
Terrence Deyalsingh -

TT’s first recorded case of the omicron variant is an imported one. Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh reported this during the ministry's virtual covid19 briefing on Monday.

He said the case was detected in a woman, a TT national, who departed New York on December 9.

“This is the disturbing part. In New York, she was allowed to board a flight with a positive PCR test, in contravention of our TTravel Pass regulations.

"The person then travelled to Panama, where they presented a negative antigen test, and then flew to Trinidad.

"Luckily our Trinidad Port Health picked up the fact that this person was allowed to board with a positive PCR test. The last barrier, or check and balance, in Trinidad, at Piarco, worked –and I want to congratulate our Port Health officers. who have been doing a wonderful job in screening passengers coming in, even though they have been subject to abuse.

He said the woman was "immediately isolated in a step-down facility and continues to be isolated. She is vaccinated.”

Deyalsingh said in conformity with international travel regulations, when there is a case of an infectious disease on board an aircraft, the protocols are that everyone within a two-row radius is quarantined.

“That is, those two rows ahead, two rows behind, and two rows on either side have been quarantined at home.

"Luckily all 14 had negative PCR tests, all are fully vaccinated.

"They are in quarantine," he repeated, "and will be monitored.”

Deyalsingh said he had spoken to the National Security Minister about the incident on Monday, as there are several areas in which penalties could be issued.

“The Health Ministry will be providing to the National Security Minister the name of the person, the airline – because they have some liability in this – and the person for doing what they did.

"When he gets the information, his ministry will do all the backtracking to see which airline it was, if it was the same airline from New York to Panama, then from Panama to here. If there is any lapse along that chain that carries a fine or charge, that will be that ministry’s responsibility to work with the international agencies to bring penalties and/or charges to bear.”

The TTravel Pass website says, “It is a criminal offence to load, present false documentation (such as vaccination records, or covid19 test certificates) or make false statutory declarations. If charged and found guilty, you may be subject to a penalty of $350,000 and six months in jail on summary conviction.”

Speaking in Parliament later in response to an urgent question by Caroni East MP Dr Rishad Seecharan, Deyalsingh explained how the TTravel Pass worked.

“All individuals using TTravel Pass must answer a questionnaire as truthfully as humanly possible, or truthfully.

"To support those truthful answers, the individual is supposed to upload their documents to support and validate what they answer.

"At the check-in counter with the airline, the airline is supposed to scrutinise the hard copies at both the port of embarkation in New York or anywhere else, and they are also scrutinised at the point of disembarkation, as happened in Piarco.

"There are two further checks and balances to verify the uploaded information. The final check and balance is at the Piarco International Airport, and this was picked up, where the officers noticed that the PCR test was in fact a positive PCR test.

“It’s a joint responsibility with the airline, not the Ministry of Health in TT, but the airline and the check-in counter, to ensure that the PCR results and any other documents are actually valid, and that is what did not happen in this particular case in New York.”

The TTravel Pass website says everyone entering TT must have a pass, which they must get online. Travellers who successfully complete the application process are automatically granted a pass, which can be printed or saved on a mobile device for use to board the flight and to enter TT. Getting a pass does not guarantee access to the flight nor entry into TT, as all travellers are still subject to the validation processes of the airlines and border control authorities in TT.

In Panama, however, according to tourismpanama.com, “Travellers will not have to present a negative covid19 test for entry as long as they can provide physical or digital proof of a complete vaccination scheme endorsed by the WHO, EMA and FDA, equal to or greater than 14 days after the last dose.”

The TT Airports Authority website says the only airline which flies between Trinidad and Panama is Copa Airlines.

Airlines which fly from New York to Panama include Copa, Delta and United Airlines.

Deyalsingh reiterated that the female passenger was flagged at the airport and never entered the general population before she was ordered into state quarantine.

“Our protocols worked, The person was sent immediately to a step-down facility, so at no point in time was the individual in the general public, her family, village, community, exposed to her.

"What is concerning is the behaviour of the individual knowingly doing this; (and) secondly, that the screening at the airport in New York did not work. So as the CMO said, that is something we will now feed back to the airport in New York so they could tighten their protocols.”

CMO Dr Roshan Parasram said once the passenger was flagged by the Port Health department and isolated, the Health Ministry told the Trinidad Public Health Lab that the sample should be sent for sequencing to the UWI molecular biology lab.

Professor of molecular genetics and virology at UWI Christine Carrington said the sequencing was carried out in just over 24 hours.

“We received it on Saturday, and gave the results on Sunday, just over 24 hours.”

Deyalsingh said, in response to an urgent question from Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal, that he did not know the name of the airline which had allowed the passenger to board with a positive PCR test.

“The name of the airline is currently being investigated. Port Health did their due diligence, and the information has been passed on to the relevant authorities, which include the Civil Aviation Authority and the Immigration Department. They will make the identification and do the necessary investigations.

"At this point in time, I do not know the name of the airline. We will work as a team. We have done our part.”

Carrington said the omicron variant was reported by South African scientists on November 21. It was designated a variant of concern because it contained an unusually large number of mutations including in the gene that encodes the spike protein, which the virus uses to bind to and infect cells. She said this meant antibodies induced by existing vaccines and infection with pre-existing variants will bind less efficiently and therefore may not be as effective as blocking infection.

She said it has become clear that the omicron variant has a growth advantage over the delta variant. The variant has been found in 63 countries so far and the UK reported its first death on Monday.

“It is clearly spreading more rapidly, and confirmed cases are increasing exponentially and displacing delta in some countries. Data from the UK has found that the risk of transmission within households was three times higher than the delta variant, and the risk of any close contact becoming a case was about twice as high. A major reason for omicron’s rapid spread was the reduction in immune protection against infection.”

Carrington said in the real world, the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-Biontech vaccines showed a lower effectiveness, of about 40 per cent, against symptomatic infection with either omicron or delta after six months.

“However, two weeks after a booster with Pfizer, the vaccine effectiveness against both delta and omicron goes back up to about 70 per cent. This data talks about infection with symptoms, but the effectiveness against severe disease, hospitalisation and death is expected to be even higher and to be similarly enhanced by a third dose or two doses in those previously infected. The same is expected of other vaccines.”

Deyalsingh urged people to get vaccinated, as he said the consequences of an omicron wave on top of the current delta wave in TT could be dire.

This story was originally published with the title "TT records first omicron case" and has been adjusted to include additional details. See original post below.

TT has recorded its first case of the omicron variant.

Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh confirmed this during the ministry's virtual covid19 briefing on Monday.

He said the case was detected in a woman who travelled from New York, with a positive PCR test, to Panama, where she boarded with a negative antigen test.

He said the positive PCR test was noted by Port Health in TT, and the woman was placed in isolation at a step-down facility, where she remains.

He said the 14 people in a two-row radius in the airplane the Omicron-positive person was in, have been contacted, were isolated at home and are being monitored. He said all had negative PCR tests.


"[UPDATED] Health Ministry: Trinidad and Tobago’s first omicron case breached travel protocols"

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