Blow to Covid-19 fight as State abandons testing

Friday, July 17th, 2020 10:00 |
Intensive Care Unit beds and other general health facilities at a hospital in Kerugoya, Kirinyaga county. PD/FILE

The war against the Covid-19 pandemic has suffered a major blow after the government quietly closed 20 centres across the country that were collecting samples for testing.

Instead, the government has now shifted its focus to confirmed Covid-19 patients for admission and care, depending on their condition.

Though the government says the move has been prompted by unsustainability of mass testing, medics and researchers are accusing the State of “abandoning vulnerable Kenyans” at their hour of need.

All the 20 centres that have previously been used to collect samples from the public have stopped operating, opening the doors for the six private laboratories which are now making a kill by charging between Sh8,000 and Sh13,000 per test, which most Kenyans already hit by the economic downturn cannot afford.

Signs that the fight against coronavirus was headed for tough times emerged last week after the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) issued a statement announcing it would no longer collect samples for Covid-19 testing, but will instead test samples from targeted samples.

 “We would like to notify the public that Kemri will not be handling sample collection for Covid-19 testing.

However, the institute will continue to discharge its national duty of conducting the Covid-19 sample testing in all our designated laboratories countrywide,” Kemri Director-General Yeri Kombe said in a statement.

Losing track

“Walk-ins will not be allowed at our facilities. If people start crowding at Kemri, it will be like we are spreading the virus, with no social distancing. It beats the logic,” Prof Kombe stated.

A day after, Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe defended the move, insisting that the decision had been taken to avoid possibilities of the samples collected at Kemri ending up infecting people visiting the facilities. 

“Kemri laboratories handle infectious samples and the possibility of infection is very high, so this is in the interest of protecting the public. It’s for their safety,” Kagwe said.

And with that, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans who had voluntarily been visiting Kemri and other government laboratories to have their samples collected for testing have been left without any option.

The country has 27 laboratories with the capacity to test for Covid-19 with 20 of them owned by the government and the remaining seven by private entities.

Kemri has three research centres in Nairobi and 12 others in Alupe (Busia), Kericho, Kisumu, Kilifi, Machakos, Wajir, Namanga and Naivasha (mobile) and the Centre for Infectious and Parasitic Disease (Busia), among others.

Other government-owned facilities are the National Influenza Centre (NIC), National HIV Reference Laboratory (NHRL), Coast Provincial General Hospital, Moi Teaching and Research Hospital and Kenyatta National Hospital

The private laboratories include Acadamic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (Ampath), Lancet, Nairobi Hospital, Aga Khan University Hospital, Amref and Nairobi West Hospital.

Sources at the Ministry of Health say the open market testing cost should be about Sh5,000, including Sh2,500 for reagents, Sh2,000 for other consumables and Sh500 for consultancy.

“I think the government seems to have lost track and needs to refocus its strategy on the war on the pandemic.

There are many things, like scaling down on testing members of the public that is not in the right direction,” Dr Githinji Gitahi, the Amref Africa, Group CEO warned.

Highly-placed sources at the ministry intimated to People Daily that the government is facing a crisis over a shortage of testing kits and reagents at a time the number of confirmed positive cases of Covid-19 is skyrocketing.

“Testing capacity for the Covid-19 had been limited from the first day, and it is illogical for the government to tell us that it is now targeting only high risk individuals.

The government has abandoned her people. This is a time bomb that is waiting to explode,” the vice chairman of the Kenya Medical Association (KMA) Dr. Lukoye Atwoli warned yesterday.

Dr Atwoli says with the government having scaled down testing, after having failed to provide poor Kenyans with face masks and sanitisers, as well as having failed to enforce social distancing in public transport, it has left Kenyans to their own devices.

He said that the government should be talking about moving to targeted testing if it had tested at least 10 per cent of the Kenyan population.

So far, only 221,234 people have been tested, against a target of about one million.

Sources also indicate that the government has scaled down contact tracing and hardly bothers making follow-ups on mild and asymptomatic individuals under the home-based care.

Unlike in the early stages when the government deployed its machinery and resources to trace all persons who may have had contact with an infected individual, it is no longer concerned as it has not “traced any single person who has been in contact with any patient over the last one month”.

In most cases, it is upon the personal responsibility of those under home-based care to ensure about their movements, care and monitoring their health.

“It is not enough for the government to leave everything on individual responsibility.

We are at a dangerous stage, we are going to experience communal transmission on a large scale. The government must change strategy to fight the pandemic,” Atwoli said.

Whereas some government facilities are still collecting samples for testing at Sh5,000, bottlenecks have been placed to deter many people from accessing them.

Now doctors are questioning the government’s move to stop the collection of samples from people visiting the testing centres at a time when it has allowed free movement of people across the country.

Medics believe that because of inadequate testing, and because the majority, about 90 per cent don’t even show symptoms, tens of thousands of cases may have been missed. 

Tough times ahead

Medics like Dr Atwoli are warning Kenyans to brace themselves for tough times ahead unless the government rethinks its strategy on combating the pandemic.

“I am foreseeing a situation where almost 80 per cent of Kenyans will be infected with the virus. It would be too late and senseless to start mass testing at that point,” he warned.

Whereas Kagwe has said the national government has passed the mandate to test people to counties, the chairman of the Council of Governors Wycliffe Oparanya told People Daily yesterday that the devolved units are not yet in a position to undertake the exercise.

“Some counties have GeneXpert machines for testing the virus, but lack cartridges and reagents.

Also, the counties lack resources to undertake the exercise as the government is yet to release money allocated to counties,” Oparanya said.

But Prof Omu Anzala, a member of the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus, says that due to budgetary constrains, the government has changed tact to test only high risk persons such as medical personnel and contact tracing.

“Since majority of our people are asymptomatic, it is worthless testing persons that you will do nothing on them.

We are now targeting people who are in danger in order to control the mortality rate,” he said.

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