It is still taking two days for the results of coronavirus testing to be available. This is way short of the two hours which was promised by President Irfaan Ali.
Unless the time between a test and its results can be reduced to less than half of an hour, it makes little sense to undertake mass testing. But mass testing is now necessary for an accurate assessment of the incidence of the virus.
Hong Kong has a population of approximately 7.4 million persons or about 10 times that of Guyana’s. Over the past two weeks, China has tested 1.7 million of these persons in what has been described as a massive testing exercise. Comparatively, it would amount to testing about 170,000 Guyanese.
Why did China engage in this mass testing even though Hong Kong has less than 5,000 coronavirus cases? The reason for the mass testing was to determine the number of asymptomatic cases. This result would then be used to determine the pace of reopening sections of the entertainment sector such as theme parks and bars.
The APNU+AFC undertook limited testing. In the early phases, tests were only being done on persons who displayed one of three symptoms of the disease or those who had been in contact with persons who had been confirmed as positive or suspected to have the disease. The average number of tests undertaken between March and August was only 30 per day.
By the time testing was expanded – and it was only expanded in a limited way – the number of asymptomatic cases would have increased. What we had then was the failure to sufficiently increase testing as was done in the case of Barbados which has one tenth of the total number of positive cases and whose economy is now open to international flights.
The virus is now spreading like wildfire in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname. This spread is believed to be accelerated by the opening of the economy. In Guyana, the economy opened even before it was formally supposed to do so.
A number of businesses and individuals could no longer have afforded to remain closed and therefore at least three weeks before the APNU+AFC announced that there would be a six-phase opening of the economy, non-essential businesses had already started to open.
There was little or no enforcement of the regulations which had been tabled. Up to now, there is still limited enforcement. Even when it comes to the wearing of facemasks, this is not being properly enforced. Persons can be seen walking the streets, entering stores, liming at road corners and travelling in public transport without facemasks. Workers in public and private sector offices are pulling down their masks underneath their chins so that they can chat freely with their fellow colleagues. In many businesses, the system of rotation of staff is not being implemented.
This column has said before that the country cannot expect a different result if it continues to do things the same way. Right now daily tests are averaging just over 200 which is more than six times the average in the previous five months. But all these tests are doing is confirming that there is a high incidence of the virus; they are not reducing the spread.
This is why two things need to be done immediately. First, the testing capacity and turnaround time for tests results needs to be reduced. Once this is done and test results can be made available within half an hour of the test, then mass testing can be undertaken to identify as many asymptomatic cases as possible.
Forcing persons who are asymptomatic to isolate will allow for a slowing of transmission, hopefully. But there also needs to be social restrictions to help further curb the spread of the infections.
But this is proving problematic because the government is not keen on limiting institutional spread at the price of the economy. The reason why there was a riot in the prison is because there were rumours that as many as 120 prisoners have tested positive. If the virus is in the prison, it is likely to be widespread in the barracks, factories and offices.
Mass institutional testing therefore should be done beginning with the police, the army, the prisons, the fire service and then moving on large companies which employ hundreds of staffers and then to government employees, especially those working in poorly ventilated offices.
Guyana needs to begin doing a minimum of 1,000 tests per day over a two-week period but only if results can be guaranteed the same day. This may require increasing testing in the regions.
Unless mass testing is done, we may end up with mass deaths. And nobody wants that.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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