Testing delays a dangerous obstacle in battle against coronavirus

Glitches, ‘pinch-points’ and shortages must be solved as this week vital to Ireland’s health

A security guard at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, where the stadium is being used as a testing facility for Covid-19. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Long delays in the time it takes to test people for coronavirus and then tell them their result threaten to undermine our strategy for fighting the disease at one of the first steps.

Take the experience of these patients. The first fell ill last Thursday and was brought to hospital for swabbing the following day. By Tuesday, he still had not received the results of his test and was told by a nurse to expect them on Wednesday, six days after symptoms.

“Epidemiologically speaking, the most important purpose of testing for the virus is to quickly identify and isolate the sick, and through contact tracing identify those other people who could spread the virus further in the community, so they can be informed and instructed to remove themselves from circulation as soon as possible,” the patient, a trained scientist, says. “Secondarily, it is to identify those who may need specific medical monitoring or care.

“The tests and all the associated effort are utterly worthless if results are not determined much more quickly than this.”


‘Too late’

Why so? Because if he tests positive, “then as-yet none of the other close contacts I have had over the 14 days prior to becoming symptomatic are being traced”, he says.

“The many people I spent time with during the period in which I may have been shedding the virus, could themselves be shedding the virus in the community right now as a result of their contact with me, and nothing is being done to identify them. By now, there actually is no point. In terms of isolation, it’s too late.”

A second patient says she tried for two days to ring “jammed doctors’ phone lines and out-of-hours clinics which were inundated” for two days but couldn’t get through.

“And even though they may have answered the phone at four in the morning, I couldn’t call them then because I was already on another planet, concentrating on staying alive.”

Struggling system

Doctors told her it was 98 per cent certain she had the virus and ordered a test. Later, she was told only GPs could order a test.

“By this stage I could not care less for a test, it wouldn’t change my treatment and I only wanted medical help.”

“My GP registered me on the new system for a community test. The system crashed. I have yet to get an appointment for a test.”

Thankfully, both patients are recovering, but their stories show the system is struggling. There have been glitches, “pinch-points” and shortages of equipment, along with an avalanche of queries, some from the “worried well”. The problems are being ironed out, health service leaders say.

The next seven days will be crucial in the battle against coronavirus, we have been told. If things are to go our way, it is vital these issues are dealt with quickly.