PCR laboratories in Province 1 overwhelmed with increasing number of samplesDelay in test results has not only caused distress but also risked community transmission of the disease, Covid-19 suspects and patients say.
A 50-year-old man from Ward No. 11 in Biratnagar had his swab sample collected for a Polymerase Chain Reaction test by the metropolis’ health officials on Saturday. The long wait for his test result is causing him much distress, he says.
“I am very worried about the test result and the safety of my family,” he said. “If I am carrying the virus, then I might have already infected my parents, wife, children and even my neighbours.”
According to the health unit of Biratnagar Metropolis, the city collected around 1,100 swab samples for PCR tests in the past week.
“We are yet to conduct tests on 400 specimens,” said Rajendra Kuikel, an officer at the health unit.
It usually takes only a day for PCR test reports to come but the PCR laboratories in Province 1 are overwhelmed with the rising number of Covid-19 cases. This has led to a delay in conducting PCR tests on the collected samples and releasing the test results. There are three PCR labs—Dharan-based BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences, Koshi Hospital and Public Health Laboratory—currently in operation in the province.
According to Jayabendra Yadav, director at the Public Health Laboratory, each laboratory has the capacity to conduct 500 PCR tests on a daily basis.
"The three labs have a total capacity of conducting 1,500 PCR tests per day. But the local units from across the province collectively send 2,200 to 2,700 swabs every day,” said Yadav. “So there is a backlog of swab samples to be tested in the labs.”
A PCR machine installed in Mechi Hospital of Jhapa is expected to ease the burden on the three labs to some extent. The lab in Jhapa has the capacity to run 500 tests per day and has come into operation from Tuesday. According to Yadav, as many as 2,750 swab samples remain to be tested in the three laboratories as of Tuesday.
Meanwhile, coronavirus suspects who have given their swab samples for testing say the delay in receiving their reports is making their immediate family susceptible to contracting the disease from them.
“The health officials in the municipality traced me through an infected individual. It took them five days to give me my result,” said a coronavirus patient who is in his early sixties. “Five days after they took my sample, I found out that I had tested positive for the virus. I put my family and friends at risk of getting infected. Had I known about the result earlier, I would have been more careful in self-isolating.”
Dr Suresh Mehata, chief at the Health Division of Social Development Ministry in Province 1, believes that if the local units prioritised contact tracing instead of focusing on random swab collection, then the labs would be able to release the test results sooner.
“We have to prioritise PCR tests based on contact tracing and of people with Covid-19 symptoms. But the local units have been collecting swab samples of people who are not in need of a test right away,” he said. “This has also overwhelmed the labs in the province.”
“Just because you know someone who has been infected does not mean you need to get a PCR test,” Mehata added. “Those who have maintained physical distance with the infected do not come under contact tracing. But the local units are collecting swabs of those people as well."
According to him, the social development ministry is preparing to draft a guideline to systematise the collection of swab samples in the local bodies.
However, Kuikel from the Health Unit of Biratnagar Municipality says that his office has been collecting swab samples for testing based on the demand of the metropolis.
“The risk of infection has become high in the province since the easing of lockdown measures,” he said. “All local units in the province, including our municipality, have been prioritising expansion of PCR tests.”
As of Tuesday, the laboratories in Province 1 have conducted a total of 60,680 PCR tests. Among them, 1,563 samples tested positive for the virus. Morang has been a hotspot of the disease in recent days with 608 positive cases. Biratnagar alone has 342 positive cases, among them 273 are active cases.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.