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Health Ministry Defends Testing Vaccinated Passengers At Entebbe Airport

Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the Minister of Health, while addressing the media at the health ministry headquarters on Friday, says the government will test all arriving passengers to curb the importation of COVID-19 variants into the country.
(L-R) Lt.Col.Dr.Henry Kyobe the COVID-19 Incident Commander, health minister Dr.Jane Ruth Aceng, the health ministry PS Dr.Diana Atwine and Dr.Isaac Ssewanyana incharge of Entebbe Airport Lab. Courtsey Photo

Audio 4

The Ministry of Health has defended the move to test all incoming passengers including those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at Entebbe International Airport. The mandatory exercise started on October 27. 

Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the Minister of Health, while addressing the media at the health ministry headquarters on Friday, says the government will test all arriving passengers to curb the importation of COVID-19 variants into the country.

She said that vaccinated travellers will be tested because they can also contract and transmit COVID-19.

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She also defended the move to use PCR machines instead of Rapid Diagnostic Tests-RDTs. Rapid tests have a turnaround time of fewer than ten minutes and are widely used by neighbouring countries including Kenya and Tanzania. 

The ministry has installed eight polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines at the airport to test all incoming travellers. PCR is a test that detects genetic material from a specific organism, such as a virus, which Dr Aceng says is more reliable than RDTs in detecting the virus particularly among covid-19 positive travellers who do not show signs and symptoms.

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Dr Diana Atwine, the Permanent Secretary at the health ministry, says that the PCR tests are the gold standard for detecting the virus and also in conducting confirmatory tests for presumptive positive samples.

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In its latest travel advice, after July 2nd, 2021, the World Health Organisation-WHO recommended member states to lift measures such as testing and quarantine of travellers who are fully vaccinated at least two weeks before travelling with COVID-19 vaccines listed by WHO for Emergency Use or approved by stringent regulatory authorities.

In the same advisory, WHO recommended that member states should offer alternatives for unvaccinated travellers or travellers who do not have proof of past infections such as through the use of negative PCR tests or antigen detection rapid diagnostic tests (Ag-RDT).

The government commenced mandatory testing for all incoming passengers regardless of their vaccination status on October 27.

But passengers have complained about the turnaround time and congestion at various points, particularly sample collection and results waiting area.

Each passenger will pay 30 US Dollars, about shillings 100,000 for the test, regardless of whether he or she is fully vaccinated. Only children below six years and fully vaccinated aircrews are exempted from mandatory testing.

Aceng also noted that the ministry and other stakeholders including National Information Technology Authority - Uganda-NITA-U, PostBank and Uganda Civil Aviation Authority-UCAA are addressing communication, dispatch of results, and payment challenges that have so far been identified during mandatory testing at the airport.

She adds that five officials have been deployed to relay information to the passengers including giving guidance on where they should go for help. This is after some passengers complained about the absence of officials to handle their complaints or direct them on where to proceed during the exercise.

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The health ministry says 150 personnel including medics, data entrants, and security officers have been deployed to implement the exercise.  It is estimated that the airport handles an average of 1,100 arriving passengers per day.

For effective management, 30 sample collection booths have been created. These booths can collect 30 samples every 5 minutes.

Also, eight PCR machines have been installed at the airport with the capacity to test 300 samples per hour and 3,600 samples in 12 hours and 7,200 samples in 24 hours.

Dr Aceng says the turnaround time is a maximum of 2 hours, adding that passengers should fill in the pre-arrival online form and also make online payments to "quicken the process of sample removal, testing and receiving results upon arrival."