Lebanon must tighten airport COVID-19 measures to avoid new surge: Abiad

In June so far, around 150 cases have been detected among travelers, with 113 of those cases recorded just last week, comparing to some 290 cases detected throughout the whole of May

  
A worker pushes luggage outside Beirut international airport on its re-opening day following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beirut, Lebanon July 1, 2020.

A worker pushes luggage outside Beirut international airport on its re-opening day following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beirut, Lebanon July 1, 2020.

Reuters/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT: Lebanon must ramp up monitoring of positive coronavirus cases entering from abroad, even as the country enjoys a decline in the spread of the disease, the head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital told The Daily Star Monday.

Dr. Firass Abiad said with more people flying in for the summer season it is more vital than ever before to control the number of infected travelers coming through the airport, which now makes up around 25-30 percent of daily cases, a figure that was not a concern when Lebanon was recording highs of 3,000-4,000 local cases at the start of the year.

But as Lebanon’s daily numbers have dropped to an average of 100-200 positive cases, and deaths have fallen into single figure, the number of infections among travelers now makes up a greater ratio.

In June so far, around 150 cases have been detected among travelers, with 113 of those cases recorded just last week, comparing to some 290 cases detected throughout the whole of May.

Countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iraq, have brought in the highest proportion of cases in recent weeks as new more contagious variants trigger a spread in the disease, just as governments ease restrictions amid successful vaccine campaigns.

Abiad, who has become a lead voice in Lebanon’s fight against COVID-19, expressed concern over a possible repeat of last summer’s surge after the July reopening of Beirut airport, when numbers steadily rose as precautions were relaxed.

“Last year the airport was where it all started, the surge started in the summer, [after] we had a very good initial response [to the virus], and we were commended by all of the world.”

At present, anyone coming into Lebanon either through land, sea, or air, has to take a mandatory PCR test and wait between 24 to 48 hours for a result, having also had to present a negative test before arrival at the border.

It is in this waiting period that the virus risks being spread among the community, particularly as authorities have neglected Lebanon’s track-and-trace system or to monitor quarantine, leaving individuals to move around without much fear of reprisal.

Moreover, travelers have reported chaotic scenes at Beirut airport with all social distancing measures abandoned as crowds of people, many without facemasks, queue to take PCR tests with little intervention from airport authorities.

In April, the Public Works and Transport Ministry and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued a circular allowing any passenger who has received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine at least 15 days prior to entry into Lebanon, not to undergo a PCR test upon arrival at Beirut airport.

But some have pressed authorities to reverse the decision, considering that vaccinated individuals can still transmit the virus.

Dr. Petra Khoury, member of the national committee for COVID-19 and health adviser to the prime minister, explained that airport figures are regularly monitored.

“Every week we look at trends, we find out and evaluate if there is a country that is exporting more cases to Lebanon, we might put some quarantine measures – like we did for the UK,” Khoury told The Daily Star Monday.

Passengers arriving from Britain, along with Brazil and India, which have all showed new variants of the virus, the most recent being the ‘Delta’ variant originating in India, are now subject to mandatory five-day quarantine at designated hotels.

The Health Ministry is keen to ramp up Lebanon’s vaccine rollout over the next two months to derail any impending autumn wave of the virus, after the country enjoys a period of freedom from COVID-19 restrictions during the summer.

But Abiad stressed that Lebanon must not make the mistake of relying on vaccination alone to curb the spread of the disease.

“I think that we haven’t seen a [successful] model [around the world] based purely on vaccination, which at the moment seems to be our strategy,” Abiad said, pointing to the example of the UK, which is undergoing a virus rebirth, despite boasting 60 percent of its adult population to be fully vaccinated.

Lebanon should instead look to the likes of Australia and China, who have managed to maintain the virus with stringent border policies.

“One thing we have learnt is that I don’t think there is a country that was able to bring the COVID number down without border control,” he said.

With an increase in travelers expected in Lebanon through the summer -- visiting diaspora and potential tourists -- it is only natural that there will be a rise in positive cases, Abiad added.

Khoury said that testing of passengers on arrival “irrespective of whether they are vaccinated or not,” is the most important way to control new variants, but admitted “none are going to be stopped at any border.”

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