The Eastern Cape is sitting with a massive backlog of more than 20,000 Covid-19 tests and its 38 laboratories are battling to clear the problem due to a deluge of samples coming in daily, and a global shortage.
According to the area manager of the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS), Tabita Makula, the labs fell behind when the province started testing everyone, including those showing no Covid-19 symptoms.
She said this in a 21 May letter addressed to the provincial health portfolio committee in Bhisho.
“The laboratories started accumulating backlogs due to changes in the testing strategy. The districts started testing asymptomatic PUIs [person under investigation] resulting in an increase in the number of samples received.”
Makula advised the committee to change the testing strategy.
“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 … results.”
She said the NHLS had issued a letter allowing the [regional health] departments to send mass screening Covid-19 samples directly to the private sector to allow it to test priority samples.
Makula added 63,070 samples have been extracted, but only 41,712 were completed.
“Test kits that could have been utilised for priority samples, e.g. hospitalised patients or primary contacts, were used for testing asymptomatic patients. The current system of prioritising urgent specimens should alleviate this problem when fully implemented,” she said.
The Eastern Cape has 38 laboratories spread across the eight health districts.
The letter revealed the Buffalo City Metropole in East London has by far the largest backlog with 6,437 samples untested. It is followed by the OR Tambo District in Mthatha with 3,505, Nelson Mandela Bay in Port Elizabeth with 3,000 and Chris Hani in Komani with 2,896.
Makula added there was a global shortage of test kits, saying this was crippling the province’s efforts to fight the pandemic.
She said the health department had contacted the US ambassador to assist and have chartered planes to fetch test kits to combat the virus.
Department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo declined to comment on Makula’s comments, saying issues of policy change and strategies were only discussed at a higher level by the provincial Covid-19 command council.
“I cannot comment on this because I am not at liberty to communicate. This is a policy shift the person is calling for and therefore it should be responded to by the provincial command centre led by Premier Oscar Mabuyane.”
Mabuyane’s spokesperson, Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha, did not to respond to questions at the time of writing.
This as the DA in the Eastern Cape has been critical of the department’s response.
DA health spokesperson Jane Cowley said after two months of the lockdown, the province was still nowhere near having the extra beds, personal protective equipment or human resources to deal with the crisis.
Responding to the DA’s calls, Kupelo suggested the party was engaging in political opportunism.
“The World Health Organisation’s chief executive officer warned all the countries’ heads of state and officials, including political parties, that if they politicise Covid-19, that will be the day people will suffer because the virus knows no politics, no boundaries, this is an international pandemic.
“This is not the right time to point fingers. This calls for everyone to put hands on deck to deal with the enemy which doesn’t discriminate.”