New COVID-19 test rules create logistical hurdles for the Caribbean

Jan 14 (Reuters) - Caribbean tourism officials are rushing to increase COVID-19 testing capacity after the United States became the latest country to require nearly all arriving passengers to present a negative test within 72 hours of departure.

Some tropical vacation spots, which attract U.S. tourists banned from traveling to other regions, face a strain on their COVID-19 testing resources as more governments take additional steps to curb a second wave of the pandemic.

Jamaica on Wednesday named a special task force to boost the country’s COVID-19 testing capacity following the new U.S. order which goes into effect on Jan. 26.

Vanessa Ledesma, acting CEO and director general of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, called COVID-19 testing rules from the United States, Canada and Britain “a tremendous challenge” for the region due to a lack of testing equipment and lab facilities that can meet large demand in short turnaround times.

“Most of the region needs additional time to rapidly build up additional capacity,” she said by email.

U.S. infectious disease specialist Dr. David Freedman warned of the risk of straining resources in poor countries that are struggling to test their own residents.

While analysts and some airline executives expect the new order will disrupt demand in the short term, U.S. carriers back the testing rules with the long-term goal of reopening international markets.

“I think you can see some short-term demand fluctuation but it’s the right answer for the long term,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told Reuters ahead of the carrier’s earnings on Thursday.

With global travel limited by COVID-19 restrictions, the Caribbean is important for U.S. carriers American Airlines , United Airlines and Delta as well as for low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines Co and Spirit Airlines.

Unlike the U.S. announcement, a decision by Canada to require testing for inbound passengers as of Jan. 7 caught airlines by surprise. Hundreds of passengers were denied boarding on return flights for ineligible tests.

Air Canada and WestJet Airlines announced job cuts after the government decision, citing in part new testing requirements.

In turn, Canada had to postpone the requirement for travelers from Jamaica to adhere to the negative COVID-19 tests on arrival, instead allowing passengers to test upon arrival in Toronto. (Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal and Tracy Rucinski in Chicago Editing by Matthew Lewis)