Taiwan, Palau mulling COVID-19 rapid testing to facilitate travel bubble

Taipei, March 7 (CNA) Taiwan and Palau are considering a COVID-19 rapid testing protocol for travelers from Taiwan, as they prepare to establish a “travel bubble,” a medical expert said Sunday.

Under the plan, Palau would set up a tourist verification center, which will coordinate with seven to nine medical facilities in Taiwan, so that travelers to Palau can take COVID-19 tests and have a soft copy of the results sent to the verification center before their departure, said Hung Tzu-jen (洪子仁), deputy superintendent of Shin-Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital.

The streamlined procedure will save people the time and hassle of going to the medical facilities to pick up their test reports, according to Hung.

Upon arrival in Palau, tourists might need to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or a fast antibody test, arranged by customs or medical institutions there, he said.

The measures adopted in that regard will be announced by Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), Hung added.

He said the establishment of a “travel bubble” between Taiwan and Palau would be beneficial to their economies and tourism and could be of great humanitarian significance.

Due to its limited medical resources, Palau has been sending critically ill patients and those requiring emergency treatment to Shin-Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital in recent years, under an agreement between the two sides, Hung said.

With the cancellation of regular flights between the two countries since last year due the COVID-19 pandemic, however, those patients have to depend on humanitarian aid to obtain a charter flight to Taiwan, he said.

Last year, about 120 seriously ill patients from Palau were treated in Taiwan, according to Hung.

Given the cost of a charter flight that carries no more than 10 people, many patients would have to wait a very long time to get to Taiwan, he said.

The planned “travel bubble” is expected to help solve that problem and highlight the value of the “Taiwan can help” initiative, Hung said.

Palau, one Taiwan’s 15 diplomatic allies, has not had any confirmed cases since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January, it began distribution of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and has vaccinated 3,000 people so far, mainly healthcare and other frontline workers, which translates into a vaccination rate of 17 percent, according to Hung.

Hung said his hospital will dispatch medical personnel to Palau by the end of April to help with the vaccination program, which will boost the country’s vaccination rate to 50 percent.

Earlier Sunday, CECC spokesperson Chuang Jen-hsiang (莊人祥) said the center will be discussing the program in the next few days and will reveal further details afterwards.

Currently, travelers from Taiwan to Palau are required to quarantine for at least five days, while those arriving in Taiwan from the Pacific island country must quarantine for 14 days, according to Chuang.

Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the CECC, said Sunday the planned “travel bubble” between Taiwan and Palau would follow the “green corridor” pattern, which would allow travel between the two countries, with fewer restrictions on arriving passengers in each country, given that they have both been largely successful at keeping COVID-19 in check.

The timeline and details of the travel bubble will be revealed after they have been finalized, hopefully in the next few days, Chen said.

(By Chang Ming-hsuan and Evelyn Kao)