No COVID tests on weekends? People forced to navigate a complicated hotline system

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By Vishani Ragobeer

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There have been concerns that people are not opting to get tested for COVID-19 and as such, the reported figures on the number of people infected everyday might be an “underestimate” of the actual number of people infected with the deadly virus locally. But, could the hotline system instituted to help people get tested safely be a contributing factor to the lower-than-expected testing rates?

There has been a significant increase in the number of people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, during the month of September; so far, reports from the Ministry of Health confirm that 5,359 people have been infected, but the Health Minister Dr. Frank Anthony says that the actual number of people infected might be greater.

Last Monday, during his daily COVID-19 update, he said that the limited COVID-19 testing in most regions might signal that the reports of the number of people infected are “artificially low” and are an “underestimate” of the actual infection rate. According to him, anyone exposed to someone who tested positive or who is suspected to be infected should take a COVID-19 test.

Earlier in the year, Dr. Anthony said that the National Public Health Reference Laboratory has the capacity to conduct 2,000 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per day, with approximately 96 samples processed every three hours. And, there are testing sites set up in every region.

But on Tuesday, the Health Minister explained, “The challenge that you have is that people are not coming forward to be tested, so one is to have the capacity and the second is whether people are coming to get tested and I think that is a problem that we have.”

This situation is worrying since, as Dr. Anthony explained, some of those people who may be infected may need treatment if their health deteriorates with the infection. But, because they do not want to get tested, they would not readily access the needed healthcare.

The News Room was, however, informed that there are challenges with accessing testing. Specifically on weekends, when people generally have more free time to get tested or even when people might only then realise they were exposed, it is difficult to access testing. This seems to be caused by miscommunication of the testing schedule or outright unavailability of the services.

A hotline system has been set up and is expected to operate 24 hours daily. It was instituted to help address the concerns of people but also to provide directions on getting tested. And, while responding to questions from the News Room recently, Dr. Anthony said that the public testing sites should be operational on weekends.

Having received a report that this was not the case, however, the News Room contacted all of the numbers and tried to access COVID-19 testing. The experiences are summarised below:

Region One: 674-9584

Testing was available at the weekend. On Sunday morning, the operator of the hotline number said that any person exposed to COVID-19 would be able to get a PCR COVID-19 at the Port Kaituma hospital before 16:00 hours.

Importantly, it was explained that the sample taken would have to be sent to Georgetown for testing and the results are then sent back to the region.  As such, it would take about three days before an individual would know whether they are COVID positive or not. During that waiting period, the individual is asked to self-isolate.

Region Two: 609-0257

When this hotline number was called, it was explained that COVID-19 testing is not done at the weekend. If a household with at least 25 people was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, however, provisions would be made to dispatch a team of healthcare workers to the house. That team would test each exposed person.

Region Three: 254-0313 / 254-1261

Region Three is one of the more populated regions of Guyana and based on the Ministry of Health’s daily COVID-19 dashboards, many of the total new infections are recorded here. In fact, over the past seven days, there were 1,354 people newly infected with COVID-19 and 307 of those infections were recorded in Region Three.

Yet, the listed hotline numbers were not helpful. The first number was repeatedly answered by security personnel of the West Demerara Regional Hospital. And, both on Saturday and Sunday, the security personnel were unable to provide any information on the COVID-19 testing purportedly offered. Meanwhile, the second number was not answered despite repeated attempts at calling.

Region Four: 624-6674 / 624-2819 / 624-3067 / 231- 1166

Accessing COVID-19 testing in Region Four- Guyana’s most populated region and the region that has consistently yielded the most infections – was complicated.

For two consecutive weekends, efforts were made to verify if the tests were available at the weekend. On September 18, the News Room was informed that testing was not available then but an operator told the caller to self-isolate until Monday, by which time, testing sites would be operational again.

On September 25, between 15:00 hrs and 16:00 hrs, all four of the hotline numbers were contacted. It was communicated that the COVID-19 testing is only done from 09:00 hrs to 14:00 hrs on Saturdays; these tests are done at the Paradise and Herstelling health centres, at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) and at the Umana Yana. It was communicated, however, that testing was not offered on Sundays.

At the Umana Yana testing site, the News Room discovered that the nurse attempted to turn away a journalist who resided in Region Three; she reportedly told the journalist that she cannot be tested because she is not a resident of Region Four. It was only after the journalist threatened to call the Health Minister that she was tested.

When contacted, the health ministry’s Public Relations Officer (PRO) Shabana Shaw affirmed that testing is done at the weekend (on both days). She also said that the Paradise and Herstelling testing sites would be operational on Sunday (September 26).

The 624-6674 hotline was called again on Sunday morning to verify the information provided by the PRO. When asked if testing was available, the response was: “No ma’am, until tomorrow.”

The operator, however, provided another telephone number that is not listed and told the caller to try asking for a test. When that number was called, only then it was explained that testing was available at the Paradise and Herstelling sites, and at the Health Emergency Operations Center (HEOC) in Quamina Street, Georgetown.

The Herstelling testing site was visited later on Sunday and it was indeed operational.

Region Five: 624-9000 / 624-3000

In Region Five, the hotline operator also communicated that testing was not done at the weekend. Still, efforts were made to contact the Mahaicony hospital directly; this is a known testing site. Contrary to what the hotline’s operator said, the nurse on duty explained that PCR testing is done at the weekend but the doctor on duty determines who is tested.

“… we don’t turn anyone down but we allow everybody to meet the doctor and the doctor makes the final evaluation,” the nurse said. It was further explained that often, those individuals who present with the more serious symptoms of COVID-19 are given the tests at the weekend.

Region Six: 667:4449 / 682-3055

According to a Region Six hotline operator, COVID-19 testing is only available up to 13:00 hours on Saturdays. Testing is not done on Sundays.

Region Seven: 654-0405/ 675- 9131 and Region Eight: 608-7517

It was communicated that COVID-19 testing is only available from 09:00 hrs to 13:00 hrs on Mondays to Fridays in Region Seven and in Region Eight, from 09:00 hrs to 15:00 hrs on selected days, that is, primarily when there are outgoing flights.

In Region Eight, however, the operator indicated that testing is offered on an emergency basis at the regional hospital. This emergency basis refers to those individuals experiencing the serious symptoms of COVID-19 including fever or chills, shortness of breath, a loss of taste or smell, a runny nose or head and body aches.

Region Nine: 772-2006 and Region Ten: 444-3007 

Efforts to call these numbers at the weekend proved futile.

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