Saturday 28 November, 2020

MOH ramping up contact tracing, COVID-19 testing capabilities

Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh has outlined a number of developments in the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was speaking at a media briefing held today.

Minister Deyalsingh said testing protocols for the 2019 novel coronavirus would be improving and increasing based on World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations.

Before they can increase testing, however, the Minister said they need to have more ‘bodies on the ground’, specifically to assist with contact tracing of those people who may have been in close contact with patients who have since tested positive for the COVID-19 disease.

This, as the Minister pointed out, the country must now prepare for community spread of the disease. All confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far, have been classified as imported cases, as all patients had a recent travel history to affected countries.

The Minister shared that 100 people will be going on the ground from as early as this weekend to assist with contact tracing.

The 100 people are all trained personnel – 50 are trained volunteers from the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross, and the other 50 are registered nurses will be sourced from the District Health Visitor programme launched a month ago. The Minister said he has asked the University of the West Indies to suspend the academic part of the programme and allow the nurses to assist with contact tracing as soon as possible.

Minister Deyalsingh went on to address changes being made to the human resourcing at two hospitals in the country – namely the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex (EWMSC) and the Couva Hospital.

Deyalsingh said some senior medical officers and consultants will now be attached to the Couva Hospital which is the location for advanced care of COVID-19 patients.

In order to fill the gap left by these doctors at the EWMSC, the Minister said they will be hiring more junior doctors to work under the supervision of consultants stationed at that hospital.

Minister Deyalsingh said he has also asked the Deputy Permanent Secretary of Health Brenda Jeffers to reach out to retired health care workers – doctors and nurses – in the event that their assistance is required in the future.

Regarding the deployment of the COVID-19 hotlines for the public to call in to, Minister Deyalsingh the hotlines are up and currently being tested by a select group.

He expects it will be ready to roll out to the public by next week.

The Minister also shared that a mobile application has been donated free of charge to the government to assist with diminishing the burden on the hotlines once launched.

The app will take individuals through a series of questions which should allow them to ascertain if they meet the criteria for having COVID-19, without having to speak to a person.

Also addressing the media was Pan-American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation representative, Dr Erica Wheeler, who spoke about the ways the organisation would be supporting the expansion of the diagnostic capacity of COVID-19 testing at the Trinidad and Tobago Public Health Laboratory.

She said they’d be looking at the equipment at the lab to see whether they are compatible with the tests and if they are not, PAHO would provide information to the government on suppliers.

PAHO will also be building the capacity of the staff at the lab to conduct these tests.

Referring to the mounting travel restrictions across the region, Dr Wheeler said PAHO will be implementing online coaching for staff who will need to carry out the testing.

Apart from the infrastructural and human resource support, with the tools available to them, PAHO has also been helping the government better prepare for all possible outcomes as community transmission becomes a reality.

She said: “We don’t want to be caught unaware. Between capacity to do more testing and also modelling different scenarios should there be increases, we will be in a better position to help to support and advise the government. For example, we are looking at things like hospital readiness checklists, protocols and standard operational procedures. We will be looking at the isolation facilities in ICU.”

In addition to all these developments, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has also widened its capacity to test and is now using the new directives and definitions from the WHO.  

CARPHA representative Dr Lisa Indar said that now, all samples which meet the definition of a “suspect” or “probable” case of COVID-19 will be tested.

These definitions are outlined in the WHO’s most recent (dated 19 March 2020) situation report which can be found here.

As of Friday afternoon, the Ministry of Health confirmed it had submitted 258 samples to CARPHA for testing. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country at this time remains at 9. 

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