Canadians stuck in Jamaica say COVID testing process is flawed, call for investigation

By Pat Taney

Many people have gone abroad and got stuck by getting COVID-19, it’s a basic risk of travelling these days, but some travellers are crying foul, claiming their testing process was flawed.

Windsor resident Marco Sperduti and his wife, Elizabeth traveled to Negril, Jamaica in November to celebrate their 10-year anniversary. After past experiences, they decided to stay at the Royalton Negril Resort.

“We’ve stayed at other Royalton resorts in different parts of the Caribbean and they’re wonderful properties,” Sperduti said.

The trip started off great, the weather was warm and sunny. The beaches and pool were exactly what the busy real estate agent needed before the upcoming bustling holiday season.

But then, as required for nearly all Canadians traveling abroad, they needed to take a PCR COVID-19 test before their return back home.

The Royalton Negril is a resort operated by Blue Diamond Resorts, part of the Hotels and Resorts Division of Sunwing Travel Group.

“We work with a third-party provider who conducts tests for our guests, thus we are not involved in the testing process itself,” a spokesperson for Blue Diamond Resorts told CityNews.

The day after the Sperdutis took their tests, they got some news from the nurse. “My wife tested positive for COVID-19; I was negative. Neither she nor I had any symptoms.”

Sperduti says he was told by the agency’s nurse that his wife would have to extend her stay for an additional five days and be moved to an isolation wing at the hotel. But it wasn’t a free stay. He says he was informed they would get a reduced rate—compared to what they paid when they booked their trip.

He claims he was assured by resort staff that they likely could recoup the cost through their insurance.

“The resort staff told me ‘You know, you can pay the hotel and you can just recoup your fees when you go back home from your insurance.’ Most Canadians have travel insurance for COVID,” Sperduti said.

But before he was given a new quote for the extended stay, Sperduti made a request to the nurse.

“I went down to the nurse’s station and I asked them about confirming with another test. They declined that request. They said once we have a positive PCR test, the lab tests the sample twice to confirm that it’s positive,” Sperduti recalls.

The practice of testing a positive test twice is standard at most labs.

But still, the Sperdutis claim they asked to bring in their own nurse from a private testing facility, offering to not only pay for another test but also a day pass for the nurse to come on to the property.

“They said, no, that’s not our policy. We won’t allow that. They said once you have a positive test, you are quarantined. Done, no other option.”

Sperduti said he’d gladly get a room for his wife for the required extended stay but wanted to book with his travel agent and not pay the hotel directly.

“And that’s when everything changed. We got a call from the manager who said, ‘I think your wife’s test was a false positive.’ We went back to the nurse’s station and with a few keystrokes on her computer, my wife’s positive test document was changed to negative without any further testing,” said Sperduti.

Sperduti shared the test results with us. The one that indicates his wife’s test was “reactive” for COVID was dated November 10, 2021. The specimen was recorded as being taken at 10:10 a.m. The next results document shows the exact same date and time but with a “negative” result.

Confused, the Sperdutis said they were concerned Elizabeth might actually have COVID. “So, then we were able to find an antigen test and it confirmed that Elizabeth did not have COVID. It gave us some peace of mind.”

Antigen tests are not as sensitive as PCR, or molecular tests in detecting COVID-19. According to Health Canada, a PCR test is the “gold standard” in detecting the virus.

“We communicated directly with Ms. Sperduti, who received a false-positive result from the laboratory provider that was rectified in the moment.”

A Blue Diamond Resorts Spokesperson said. “Testing protocols are complex, and we will continue to work closely with local health authorities and medical professionals on this.”

The couple was told by the Jamaican Ministry of Health that they could use the updated negative result document and return to Canada, which they did.

After connecting with other travellers, they count themselves as lucky.

Other travellers share similar stories

“This has singlehandedly been the worst travel experience of my life,” Jochebed Essel speaks by phone as she sits in a lonely and very basic hotel room that she legally cannot leave.

Her vacation started off fine enough. She and her sisters traveled from Toronto to Negril, Jamaica to attend a friend’s wedding at the Royalton Negril. They left at the end of November and their five-day vacation was supposed to end December 4.

It did for Essel’s sisters who returned home last week but she is stuck after being told by the nurse she tested positive for COVID-19, even though Essel believes she doesn’t have it.

“When we went to get the results, the nurse first handed me my sister’s test result, which was negative,” Essel said. “When I told them of the mistake, the nurse told me ‘Oh you’re Jochebed, you tested positive’ and handed me the result. I was in shock as I had no symptoms.”

Understanding some COVID patients can be asymptomatic, Essel asked the nurse to be re-tested but told CityNews her request was denied by the Nurse.

“They told me they do not do a second test after a positive result.”

She says, based on protocol, she needed to leave her room and be isolated in a quarantine section set up at the facility for at least 8 days. But in order to do so, she would have to sign an agreement and pay a new rate.

Essel refused to sign the agreement or pay until they allowed her to hire an outside agency to come to the resort and administer another COVID test to prove her diagnosis. She said they allowed her to do so but she claims that the nurse was kept waiting at the security desk, and eventually left.

“I hired a nurse who traveled to the resort. She waited at the security gate because she had to be let in. I informed the front desk, but the resort kept claiming that they couldn’t find her, even though the nurse assured me she was waiting at the gate.”

Essel said after waiting for 45 minutes the nurse called her to say she had to leave for another appointment.

“So again, I never got another test.” Blue Diamond Resorts did not respond to this allegation.

Essel ended up getting her hands on an at-home antigen rapid COVID-19 test, provided by someone staying at the resort. She took one and used her cell phone to document it via video which she provided to CityNews.

“And the result was negative,” She said.

Frustrated, Essel then claims she contacted the Jamaican Ministry of Health which was one day after she got the positive result from the resort.

“I was told there was no record of a ‘Jochebed Essel’ that had contracted COVID-19. No one from the Royalton had told them,” Essel said.

It wasn’t until hours after that phone call, Essel claims the Jamaican Ministry of Health received her initial positive result from the resort – a statement the resort denies.

“The Ministry of Health was contacted immediately as the local procedures dictate. The guest was advised of the protocols for positive COVID-19 cases by the hotel team but requested an antigen test be administered to confirm the result. The guest was advised by the Minister of Health that retesting is not the protocol for PCR positive results and was referred to local authorities for further guidance,” the resort told CityNews.

That’s when the Ministry informed Essel that she had to isolate. They allowed her to stay at a quarantine hotel — set up by the government – free of charge.

Essel said the doctor from the Ministry she spoke with assured her she would get another PCR test once she arrived at the facility, some 78 kilometres away from her resort. That, however, never happened.

“The Ministry changed course after I arrived and told me since I have a positive PCR test, I can’t get another one,” Essel said.

Now stuck in a no-frills room, far from luxury of the five-star facility she was in, she’s been spending her time reaching out to federal officials back in Canada. She spoke with an agent after calling a hotline offering help for Canadians stuck abroad. The news she got back, wasn’t good.

“When it comes to international cases, I was told by the agent that Canada has to follow the protocol of the country that they’re in. And so even if I was able to get another PCR test that showed that I was negative, I would still have to quarantine in this country.”

CityNews confirmed there were at least five other Canadians, all claim to have no symptoms, who as of Sunday, had been staying in isolation wings of Royalton properties.

“There was security outside, monitoring to make sure we didn’t leave,” said Monica Neitzert. She and her husband, Gerry Lush, are staying at another Royalton Resort in Montego Bay. Her husband was given a positive test result back on December 1 while hers was negative. Monica was told she could return home. “They said my husband would have to quarantine for 14 days.”

She did not want to leave her husband behind, so she stayed as well. But they were told they had to book separate rooms.

“They gave us a reduced rate to stay an additional 14 days, which amounts to nearly $5,000 CAD,” she said.

Like the others who spoke out, Neitzert hired an outside firm to re-test her husband with both an antigen and PCR test. She says the resort first refused to allow it but the nurse she hired found her way on to the resort to administer the tests.

Both of those re-tests came back negative.

“But those tests don’t matter,” She said. “The Jamaican Ministry of Health told us they will only accept the first test and required that we stay put in this isolation wing of the resort.”

Neitzert does not have COVID travel insurance and the amount of $4,963, they tried to charge went over her credit limit, so it was declined.

After getting her husband’s second test results, which showed he was negative, they refused to pay. “Despite that, the resort told us we could pay later and allowed us to check into the isolation rooms.”

After contacting the Jamaican Ministry of Health several days later, Neitzert was given a clearance letter from the Ministry since her husband had gone 10 days without symptoms. This meant they could at least leave the resort, but not Jamaica.

“According to Canada, my husband will not be able to come home until 14 days after the day of his first positive test at the resort.”

On Saturday, the couple tried to leave the resort without paying and the police were called.

“We did not want to get arrested, so we agreed to pay $3,436, which was a reduced rate from what they originally wanted to charge us,” Neitzert said.

The couple is now staying at another resort until Tuesday when they will be able to come back to Canada.

“We had to pay extra for this new resort, the taxi to get here and have to book new return flights to get back home,” she said.

CityNews shared Neitzert’s allegations with Blue Diamond Resorts but they did not issue a statement in response.

“The Canadian government needs to look into what’s going on here,” Essel said.

Government of Canada responds

CityNews reached out to Global Affairs Canada about these complaints, but a spokesperson only addressed the case involving Essel.

“Global Affairs Canada is aware that a Canadian citizen is under quarantine in Jamaica. Consular officials in Jamaica are providing consular assistance and are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information. Due to privacy considerations, no additional information can be provided.”

When we asked if they’re investigating other concerns from Canadians who call the testing at this resort “flawed,” the Spokesperson responded by saying “Global Affairs Canada has nothing further to add to the response you were given.”

While Blue Diamond Resorts said they will continue to work on testing concerns with their third-party vendor, a spokesperson said they’ve followed all the rules established by the Jamaican government.

“Since resuming operations in Negril in this current climate, Blue Diamond Resorts has remained diligent in the implementation and strict execution of the COVID-19 ‘Protocol to Prevent and Reach Suspected Coronavirus Cases’ and has acted in compliance with the guidance of local health authorities and the Government of Jamaica. We have taken COVID-19 standards and response protocols very seriously, and actively enforce the necessary procedures on property to protect the health and safety of all our guests and employees.”

CityNews reached out to the third-party testing vendor, contracted by the resort, but have not yet heard back.

All of the people who shared their concerns say they’re in talks with provincial and federal officials and are calling for an investigation into this resort.

“I have an email saying that these complaints have been accelerated to Global Affairs Canada and my concerns have been also forwarded to the Foreign Affairs Minister,” Sperduti said.

As for Essel, she is scheduled to return back to Toronto on Tuesday. She has since taken another PCR test. “Surprise, surprise, it came back negative,” Essel shared.

Other travel testing concerns have been raised globally

“At the end of day, it is just not easy to travel right now,” said Toronto travel insurance broker Martin Firestone. He has heard of other complaints about third party testing on resorts globally. But, so far, has not had any clients complain about Blue Diamond Resort properties.

Firestone says given a spike in COVID cases here in Canada and evolving travel rules, people need to heavily research the countries they are going to before they get on the flight.

Some other advice he have was to check how the resorts are administering the tests and if it’s a third-party vendor, research reviews of other people’s experience with that vendor.

That advice is echoed by the people who spoke to CityNews about this story. Many have now taken to social media to share their stories as “know before you go” warnings.

But they still believe Global Affairs needs to look into their complaints.

“We’re not just writing bad reviews,” Sperduti said. “A bad review is, ‘Hey, the food isn’t good. The beaches are dirty.’ That’s a bad review. This is a warning. Once again, there’s no financial gain for me to do this. You could offer me a full refund and I wouldn’t take it. This is more a warning for people.”

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