At a time when the world is transforming to safeguard human life in various ways, the implementation of biological borders seems to be a viable option to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In Puerto Rico, a gradual implementation of measures has already begun, which if strengthened, could become a protection or border against the virus. Aware of the need to maintain health controls and, at the same time, allow for an economic reopening of the Island, the virtual panel “A Biological Border for Puerto Rico” served as a platform to present the concept of the creation of a barrier or biological barrier at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.
The discussion was divided into two pressing issues. During the first part, the concept and implications of implementing a biological border were presented, particularly at the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. The second part focused on the importance of expanding the scope of testing and contact tracing.
A biological border is a system designed to identify and stop the spread of potential viruses in a specific destination. The concept, as defined, consists of a combination of testing methods, contact tracing, quarantine measures, and legal or regulatory requirements that travelers arriving in Puerto Rico through Luis Muñoz Marín Airport – and at future points of entry and exit – must comply with.
Jon Borschow, CEO of the Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR), pointed out the advantage of being an island. “We are one of the few places in the world where we do not have vehicular traffic coming from other countries, and therefore we have the advantage of being able to control our barriers to ensure that the flow of passengers to Puerto Rico is of healthy visitors. This is done by requiring that every passenger or resident who enters the island go through a screening protocol from the moment they arrive at the airport. We recommend that this protocol include the integration of rapid molecular tests, effective contact tracking using the support of technology, and an advanced quarantine system for infected passengers,” said Borschow.
Without a doubt, one of the sectors most affected by this pandemic is the well-known visitor economy, which is not limited only to the tourism and hotel industry. On this matter, the economist Vicente Feliciano highlighted that “the visitor economy is a very wide concept. Most of the jobs in this sector are from small businesses, gas stations, restaurants, transporters, etc. It is much more than big hotels, the visitor economy is responsible for the creation of 65,000 jobs, of which only 13,000 are from hotels.” Regarding elements that will help the tourism industry reestablish itself, he pointed out that “Puerto Rico has the opportunity to increase our market share, since in the short term the trend will be towards travel within the United States, which will give us an advantage over other destinations. Diaspora travel, which represents a continuous movement to Puerto Rico, will also support the recovery of the tourism sector.
For his part, aviation analyst and consultant Enrique “Kike” Cruz added that, “it is essential that the tests at the airport continue, and be even more rigorous in the process. In order for the country to reopen and sell the destination, it is important that the population feels confident about the health measures, so that they open the hotels, restaurants, etc. and to be able to sell our destination. We must be ready to grow our tourism economy in six months, not 18. We have a competitive advantage because of our geographical location. So it is imperative to show the visitor and the resident that Puerto Rico is a safe destination. It is important to be ready.”
Federico Sánchez reiterated that “the hotel industry is active and in alliance with international chains that have developed and are implementing protection protocols for staff and guests. Some of the measures include COVID-19 testing for employees, more stringent, frequent and thorough cleaning standards. Many of these measures are already part of the hotels’ protocol. We will be and are ready to welcome visitors when demand begins to arise.”
Genova Toro-Morales discussed the legal point of view indicating that “to determine a legal protocol to be implemented it is important to know the type of test that will be done, how invasive it will be. In theory, however, the Department of Health law empowers the Secretary of Health to implement whatever protocol is necessary in the face of a declared pandemic. Therefore, the government can legally implement testing at the airport.”
In the second part of the panel, one of the most important issues at this time was emphasized: testing and tracking. During this section, several tools were discussed that can be used to comply with contact tracking and complete the process successfully, including the use of artificial intelligence. They also discussed the need for an alliance between the public and private sectors to provide travelers with security in the face of the COVID-19 response on the island.
Dr. Carlos Blanco assured that the health system of Puerto Rico is prepared to attend the emergency, without overloading the system, “but more importantly we have a human resources infrastructure that has been trained and is ready for the eventuality of a need to have more patients in our hospital institutions. He also stated that “the rapid or serological test is not ideal for use at the airport, it must be replaced by the molecular test, it is a little invasive but it is the best we have at the moment. We have been working on a saliva test; it promises to be much less invasive, it does not require medical personnel to administer it and it is very similar since it is a molecular test as well. If it becomes available for use in places such as the airport, it would be ideal.”
Roberto Ponce, a global expert in the use of technology to enable contact tracing, shared many examples and best practices in countries throughout Asia that are using the technology to help process the millions of data required for contact tracing, adding, “If we can control local infections and establish this border model at the airport, Puerto Rico could become a COVID-free destination.”
For his part, Dr. Joaquin Fernández confirmed that the manual tracking efforts being carried out so far will not be sufficient, which is why the use of technology is vital to achieve effective patient tracking. “We have to think as a country, rather than criticize we must seek solutions, create government alliances with private enterprise and if we take politics apart and enter into a collaboration as a country we can achieve what we set out to do. Alliances and partnerships between government and private technology.”
Finally, Roberto Jiménez, president of V2A in reference to the creation of a biological frontier concluded that “the important thing is how we achieve this. The first thing is to protect the citizenry and in doing so, we will also be protecting the tourist, creating a high level of credibility. We cannot afford to do nothing, the opportunity is too great, the reality is that we should not question whether or not this should be done, it has to be done.”