Healthcare Horror: 3-week wait for COVID test results

n early January, teachers were conducting virtual classes, huddled in their South Trinidad school’s staff room.

As they were already hyper-vigilant because of COVID-19, a cough in such a tight setting would have been concerning.

The small room was the only area on the school compound with a reliable internet connection.

Then, it echoed through the room. It began as a cough, and one of the teachers was exhibiting flu-like symptoms upon further inspection. The teachers were ordered to get tested immediately and go into quarantine.

Private tests can cost up to $1,200, so the teachers opted for public testing at the Lengua Health Centre on January 18. Health officials explained they should expect results within five days.

However, those days came and went with nothing but silence from the Ministry of Health.

One teacher, who chose to remain anonymous, found an avenue to retrieve her results quickly.

It was a Ministry of Health email address, covid19results@health.gov.tt, where results were being queried and be returned within 24 hours.

She emailed with some hope and to her surprise, a response came the next day. It was not what she expected. The sample was not tested yet and she was told to wait another four days.

Sitting in quarantine at home, she began to worry about exposing her family. The most at risk was her husband, who is battling cancer.

Then, her concern took another turn. She began to exhibit flu-like symptoms.

According to her sister-in-law, who also chose to remain anonymous, the worries did not stop at her family.

“She is a form five and six teacher, so there are children who need to do SBAs and labs to be marked and submitted by April. The school has not decided, and the ministry is giving us a run-around,” the sister-in-law said

When this group of teachers was swabbed, testing was limited in southern Trinidad.

According to a statement from the South West Regional Health Authority (SWRHA) on January 30, 2022, their PCR bulk testing machine went down on January 11, 2022.

Samples were then sent to Trinidad and Tobago’s Medical Research Foundation labs, the North Central Regional Health Authority and the Trinidad Public Health Laboratory.

However, the SWRHA said these samples were mainly for people on home quarantine in the community awaiting results and known to the primary care health surveillance teams.

In addition, the SWRHA reiterated, “Overall there is no patient compromise to treatment requiring an urgent diagnosis with these contingencies.”

These teachers’ samples did not meet the emergency case criterion and the waiting game continued.

However, compounding her frustrations in quarantine, knowing her sample wasn’t tested yet, health officials denied a testing delay.

Instead, Dr Avery Hinds, the Ministry of Health’s Technical Director Epidemiology, said on January 29th, “(The delay) was not so much on the end of testing, necessarily, but we may have a challenge getting the results back to the individuals, but there is a massive volume of result generation that is happening that needs to be trickled out to the population via relatively limited channels.”

Trinidad and Tobago has a sample testing capacity of 1,200 samples per day in the public system. For 2022 to date, over 1,000 samples in the public system were submitted daily for testing.

However, at the peak of the December 2021-January 2022 surge, the Ministry of Health was reporting positive samples on a rolling seven-day collection period.

Irritated, the teacher and her husband continued to wait without contact from the Ministry of Health.

They were also self-treating, according to the sister-in-law.

“They’re just taking their Panadol, drinking their juice, eating their soups, and taking it easy. A little congestion, so they’re steaming and stuff like that. But again, you don’t know your COVID-19 status.”

Twenty days and 17 emails later, she finally got her result. She was COVID-19-positive. Her husband tested negative via a home rapid test kit. By the time the result came, all symptoms had subsided.

Even more remarkably, the family found out the sample was processed 17 days after it was taken.

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