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Covid-19 testing backlog swamps labs

Eastern Cape laboratories are sitting with a huge Covid-19 testing backlog
BEHIND THE CURVE: Eastern Cape laboratories are sitting with a huge Covid-19 testing backlog
Image: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS FILE PHOTOGRAPH

The Eastern Cape is sitting with a huge Covid-19 testing backlog, with 21,904 samples yet to be tested.

This is according to a letter sent to the Eastern Cape health portfolio committee by National Health Laboratory Service Eastern Cape manager Tabita Makula.

In the letter, dated May 21, Makula said the eight laboratories had accumulated a backlog due to changes in the province’s testing strategy.

“The districts started testing asymptomatic PUIs [persons under investigation] resulting in an increase in number of samples received,” he said.

“The laboratories are receiving samples on a daily basis and there is no time to catch up and clear the backlog.

“The testing strategy or priorities for Covid-19 testing in the province needs to change.

“This will reduce the number of samples received and improve turnaround time for results.

DA MPL Jane Cowley shared the letter after a digital media conference where she outlined a five-point plan to assist the health department in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The five points are:

  • Ramp up screening and testing by using a targeted approach in all hotspot areas;
  • Enforce quarantine of all persons under investigation while awaiting test results to prevent cluster and local transmission;
  • Ensure all vacant funded posts are filled immediately;
  • Double the number of personnel in the provincial laboratories which are now analysing tests to speed up results; and
  • Communicate the respective reproduction number per subdistrict.

“Every day that the health department’s head of department, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, remains in charge, is another day closer to the total collapse of public health in the province,” she said.

Cowley said Mbengashe was responsible for the “disastrous” provincial response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“After two months of lockdown [the province] is still nowhere near having the extra beds, personal protective equipment or human resources to deal with the crisis,” she said.

“The DA believes that there are enough competent and hardworking health-care workers in the province to turn around the public health-care system, but this will require strong, honest and passionate leadership to guide them.

“The response to Covid-19 requires authentic and skilled leadership,” she said.

Health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said it was unfortunate the DA chose this time to personalise health issues.

“The enemy we are facing requires us all to pull together to defeat the enemy,” he said.

“We can’t politicise issues. We must come up with solutions. It is not going to assist by pointing out individuals.”

He said the department faced many challenges, including funding constraints.

“This is not the time to point fingers but a time for action.”

Makula, meanwhile, wrote that the laboratories were running out of storage space for the samples.

“The testing strategy for the province has changed from the initial National Institute For Communicable Diseases of SA guidelines to include testing of asymptomatic patients.

This, he said, resulted in delays and laboratories incurring backlogs.

“Test kits that could have been used for priority samples such as hospitalised patients or primary contacts were used for testing asymptomatic patients.”

According to his letter, Buffalo City Metro has the biggest backlog with 6,437 cases pending.

It is followed by the OR Tambo district (3,505) and Nelson Mandela Bay (3,000).

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