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Testing not solution to COVID-19, Tufton insists


Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has defended the Government’s approach to testing, insisting that the solution to the COVID-19 crisis in Jamaica is not mass evaluation, as after a certain point more testing does very little to suppress spread of the virus.

“The fact is that, beyond a certain point you really are testing with the same results, because that’s the way the statistical modelling works… I do agree that there is a level at which you should not go below, but there are optimal levels and there are levels at which diminishing return sets in, unless your objective is to test to determine infection as opposed to prevention of the infection,” Tufton said on Wednesday at a parliamentary committee meeting on the pandemic and related matters.

“Testing will give you an indication of the challenge and, up to a certain point, it will be obvious what the challenge is. It is in the prevention, where we are going to address the real issue,” he argued.

He pointed out that clinicians have long explained that, with the virus at large across all communities for some time now, contact tracing would at some point become impractical.

“I think our efforts are better placed on pushing for the protocols to be observed and, of course, in the vaccine plan that we are now rolling out,” Dr Tufton said.

But Opposition spokesman on health Dr Morais Guy, who raised concern about decreased testing and contact tracing, disagreed.

“What you’re saying is totally against public health, and the reality is that there are implications for what is being said and what is being done. To say that those long-shared, long-standing public health measures are counterproductive and have diminishing returns, is an unfortunate statement,” he told the minister.

However, Dr Tufton countered: “We have to be careful that we do not send a signal to the population that the solution to the COVID-19 virus spread is in testing, because it is not. Statistically there comes a point when testing everyone is not going to tell us a lot more about what is happening, and I maintain that position”.

Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Jacquiline Bisasor McKenzie stressed that testing and contact tracing have been sustained, but that the ministry was disappointed that these still had to be the driver behind people taking precautions.

“At this point in the epidemic we would have hoped that the level of personal responsibility would be what is driving precautions,” she said.

To date, 282,399 samples have been tested in the public and private health sectors. As at March 30, the island had recorded 39,237 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, including 596 related deaths and 17,598 recoveries since the first case was reported on March 11, 2020. There are now 20,779 active cases.

Most of the 39,237 cases are from local transmission (38,450) and deaths represent a 1.5 per cent fatality rate, data from the health ministry said. Three hundred and eighty-nine samples returned positive on Tuesday. The daily positivity rate is now at 25.8 per cent, and the cumulative rate, 13.9 per cent.

Dr Bisasor McKenzie pointed out that it is the positivity rate which drives public health intervention, which is not expected to change based on higher numbers of tests.

“We would have the same kind of guidance whether we are testing 500 or a thousand, because the positivity rate would remain the same, and that’s our main driver of the precautions that we put in place,” she said, and noted that hospitalisations also inform positivity rates and protocols.

The CMO pointed out that the data are presented in several formats, but that this does not mean that the information is always new, or that intervention is informed by a change in the presentation of that data.

With 11,155 confirmed cases, Kingston and St Andrew account for the bulk of the infections, followed by St Catherine with 7,700, and St James with 3,882.

National epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster Kerr noted that the COVID-19 numbers plateaued around March 17, an indicator that prevention and control measures are working.

She noted, however, that although hospital admissions have generally decreased, on March 30 bed occupancy rate in the public hospitals reached 121 per cent.

“There has been improvement in the key indicators and when we look back, the institution of the measures on the 10th and 24th [of March] seems to have had an effect,” she stated.

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