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Guyana exploring “controlled crossing” to Brazil; increased COVID-19 testing

The National Public Health Reference Laboratory

Minister of Health, Dr. Frank Anthony said steps would be taken to increase the testing capacity for COVID-19 and put a new system in place for  crossing between Guyana and neighbouring Brazil where the number of cases and deaths continues to soar everyday.

His announcement came hours before latest figures showed that 12 more persons were tested positive in the past 24 hours, pushing the number of hospitalised persons to 298.

Moments after taking the oath of office before President Dr. Irfaan Ali, the Health Minister said one of the options being considered is to give special passes to Guyanese who have to go to Brazil for pensions or obtain COVID-19 relief that is being provided by that country.

“A lot of them try to cross back illegally so one of the things that we’ll have to do is to figure out a mechanism and maybe restricted or limited ways of allowing crossing between the border but a controlled way so you are not shutting it down and forcing you to go the illegal way but if we have a more controlled method of you passing through and you’re able to present your status in terms of whether you’re positive or you’re not, then I think that makes sense,” said Anthony, a trained Medical Public Health specialist.

He said COVID-19 positive people would be treated and those negative would be quarantined for a short period as part of a “logical policy” to control the highly contagious disease.

Dr. Anthony said plans are also in the pipeline to upgrade existing capacity at the National Reference Laboratory to provide results in a shorter period and eventually purchase new equipment to test a larger number of samples.

Minister of Health, Dr. Frank Anthony receiving his instrument of appointment from President Irfaan Ali on Wednesday, 5th August, 2020.

He noted that one of the major humbugs facing Guyana’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that it takes several days before samples are eventually transported from the interior to the National Reference Laboratory of the Georgetown Public Hospital. “Those that are coming out from the interior takes sometimes six or more days for people to get back their results and that does not help at all,” he said. Dr. Anthony added that it crucial for the Health authorities to detect, isolate and treat people as quickly as possible or more people would be infected.

The Minister could not say how soon the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing capacity would be upgraded but “we’re working on it” ad in the interim there would be closer collaboration with the private sector. He noted that one the “very old machines” at the National Reference Laboratory has been repurposed to conduct PCR tests which takes five to six hours to conduct 50 to 60 tests compared to modern machines that can do about 96 tests in one hour. Dr. Anthony said the plan is to increase the capacity to conduct 300 tests in 24 hours. “With that kind of testing capacity, we would be able to cover all those persons who need to be tested,” he said.

Government hopes to provide test kits to the private sector with the aim of increasing their capacity to 200 tests per day.

Plans, he said, are also in train to use approved rapid tests to guard against high false positives and false negatives, and eventually to conduct antigen tests to determine whether people have developed resistance to the disease. Already, he said the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Agency (CDEMA) has provided more than 40,000 antigen test kits to ascertain whether infected people have developed immunity.

Dr. Anthony said the cost of strengthening Guyana’s COVID-19 defence mechanism would be calculated and President Irfaan Ali informed so that the funds could be made available

The Public Health Minister lamented that the COVID-19 systems that the public health sector were “alarming” and the Infectious Disease Hospital at Liliendaal, East Coast Demerara that was last week formally opened by then President David Granger was poorly equipped. “This hospital that was opened is a total disaster because, as I said before, it is just a shell and we’ll have to take a team in there and see what we’ll have to do to get it up and running,” he said.

The Guyana government also plans to tap into assistance from the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) to provide more test kits.

Latest available figures show 509 of the 5,057 persons tested since March, 2020 are positive. They include 22 persons who have died so far and 189 others who have recovered.