COVID-19: Bihar fails to ramp up testing despite Nitish saying so

Efforts to ramp up testing seem to be losing steam; daily and monthly testing both decline 

By Mohd Imran Khan
Published: Wednesday 08 July 2020

The number of tests conducted in Bihar for the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19 have come down in the past few days, compared to the rising number of positive cases and deaths in the state.

There has been a declining trend in testing since the beginning of the month. Efforts to ramp up testing seem to have been losing steam, despite an increase in testing mid-June, when opposition parties ramped up their attacks on the government at a time when the state assembly elections inch closer.

Bihar conducted 5,168 tests July 7, 2020, 10 days after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar instructed officials to ramp up their testing numbers.

The testing rate slowed instead: A blow for Nitish Kumar, after his instruction to ramp up testing on June 29. When Kumar ordered officials to scale up testing that day, he was informed by top officials that the state tested nearly 10,000 samples, something far from the truth.

The state had instead tested 6,827 samples that day, according to official data, far below a prior instruction from Kumar in the second week of May to increase testing to 10,000 samples per day.

The testing of 5,168 samples on July 7 was less than the 5,702 samples tested on June 23, when the confirmed positive cases were 8,180.

This reduction took place when the state’s recovery rate also showed a declining trend in the past few days — decreasing to 74.55 per cent on July 7 from 77.52 per cent on July 1 — not a positive sign in the fight against COVID-19.

A declining trend in testing since the beginning of the month has been seen as well.

Bihar tested 7,799 samples on July 1, 7,291 samples on July 2, 7,187 samples on July 3, 7,930 samples on July 4, 6,799 samples on July 5 and 6,213 samples on July 6, according to official data.

Last month, Bihar tested 8,742 samples on June 27, the greatest number of tests conducted till date. This was when the recovery rate was at a 78 per cent high.

In Bihar, 385 new cases were reported — including 260 cases in Patna — on July 7. The number of cases shot up to 749 July 8 — the biggest one-day increase — with 235 fresh cases reported in Patna.

Bihar began its testing processes from mid-March. After more than three-and-a-half months, however, Bihar managed an average daily testing of around 2,000 samples, one of the lowest in the country.

Opposition increases criticism

Going by month-wise trends, Bihar increased testing in mid-June after opposition parties increased their criticism of the government.

Earlier, testing was lower: Bihar tested 537 samples on April 15, going up to 1,446 testing on April 30. The state government had 1,695 samples tested on May 15 and by May 31, testing increased to 2,353.

This increased to 3,657 tests by June 15. After that, Bihar conducted 7,906 tests on June 25, more than double within ten days. Bihar Health Secretary Lokesh Kr Singh said the government was attempting to increase testing rate, adding more testing was needed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kr Modi claimed July 7 that Bihar tested 9,000 samples per day with a recovery rate of 78 per cent, contrary to official data. This was challenged by Bihar opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav, who cited the health department’s daily updates and official figures.

Opposition leaders have begun targeting the government over decreased testing and claimed the government was suppressing the increasing number of cases, keeping the state assembly elections later this year in mind.

Government restricts data access

The state government has also tried to remain elusive with sharing data related to COVID-19.

Till last week of May, all information was uploaded in the health department’s official Twitter account and the personal Twitter account of Principal Secretary Sanjay Kumar. The department, however, changed its data sharing strategy after Kumar was removed.

Neither Bihar Health Minister Mangal Pandey nor the health department’s principal secretary Udai Singh Kumawat picked up their phones, despite repeated attempts to ascertain why testing did not pick up in the state.

Top officials of the health department have refused to share data other than the updates released twice a day. The only figures released are the total number of tests conducted, positive cases and recovery rates.

There are no specific details on the number of testing kits needed or whether the state has adequate stocks of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Data on availability of testing kits and viral transport medium kits (VTMs) used to collect samples for tests, ribonucleic acid extraction kits, infrared thermometers, masks and medicines is not being shared either.

Unlike last month, the health department has stopped sharing details on specific areas affected by COVID-19. “We cannot share more than the daily updates as we are directed to not share anything,” said a joint secretary-level official of the health department.

More healthcare workers test positive

Bihar tested 269,277 samples at seven government-run test facilities and three privately-run sectors, until July 7.

Testing at some government-run institutes, however, including the Rajendra Memorial Research Institute of Medical Sciences, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Patna Medical College and Hospital in the state capital were affected.

This was because around doctors and teaching staff in these institutions tested positive, forcing them to shut laboratories for a few days, said the official. Around 70 healthcare workers tested positive in one day, on July 7.

This has resulted in a backlog of testing.

Two other virology laboratories at Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga districts were not able to test more due to shortage of equipment, like automated RNA extraction machines.

According to Vikas Kumar, the principal of Shrikrishna Medical College and Hospital, Muzaffarpur, the institute tests between 600 and 700 samples every day. Harsh Narayan Jha, the principal of Darbhanga Medical College and Hospital admitted facing a lack of equipment as well, something that affected the institution’s testing rate.

At present, the institution’s laboratory tests 580 samples, its full capacity.

The Bihar chapter of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has urged the Union government to declare AIIMS Patna a dedicated COVID-19 hospital with at least half of the beds to be reserved for doctors and healthcare workers.

Ajay Kumar, senior vice president for IMA Bihar, said there should be more tests and mandatory for all healthcare workers as the state reported a rise in positive cases.

VIPs vs common folk

There are two separate rules for providing results of test samples. Very Important Persons, including ministers, Members of Legislative Assembly and top officials get their results either in a few hours or in a day.

Ordinary people get their results across several days, something that has increased the risk of spread of infection.

Another blow for Nitish Kumar was when the health department deployed three teams of doctors at his official residence in a high-security zone to run a makeshift hospital equipped with a ventilator.

This was done after a close relative of his tested positive. The order to run the hospital, however, had to be cancelled after opposition leaders raised questions over it.

It has become increasingly difficult to curb the spread of COVID-19, especially after increasing reports of the disease spreading to rural areas as well. The state government, after emerging from the lockdown, made it mandatory for people to wear masks outside their homes to check the spread of infection.

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