PNG struggles to gauge extent of covid in country – 7 MPs test positive

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PNG Health Minister Jelta Wong
PNG Health Minister Jelta Wong ... "From the survey that we've done ... we should be able to get a fair idea of the outbreak." Image: EMTV/RNZ

By RNZ Pacific

Papua New Guinean health authorities are struggling to gauge the extent of the country’s latest covid-19 outbreak.

More than 100 new confirmed cases of the virus have been reported in the past several days, taking the total number to 1111. The National Pandemic Controller’s office reported 34 new cases overnight.

But concern is rising over the limitations of PNG’s testing – with only around 50,000 people having been tested so far in a country of eight million.

Health Minister Jelta Wong admits that testing capabilities are limited around the country, but said testing would be boosted in the next couple of weeks.

“From the survey that we’ve done with how [much] testing equipment and testing UTMs [universal transport mediums] we have in the country, we should be able to get a fair idea of the outbreak,” Wong said.

A better idea of the outbreak’s extent should become clear in coming weeks, he explained, as a team of health workers was deployed to outer provinces to ensure protocols are being followed.

“It’s a work in progress. We’re (vying) with other countries just to get more testing capabilities and testing equipment.

“There’s a shortage in our country, and we’ve ordered more to ensure that our testing capabilities are up to standard.”

Cases among MPs
The minister confirmed that seven MPs had tested positive for covid-19 so far.

While at least three cases were reported late last year, Wong said there were currently two active cases among MPs.

Speculation is rife that one of those infected is Prime Minister James Marape who told social media last week that he had a fever.

But Marape’s office earlier this week denied that he tested positive, while Wong said he could not name the MP cases.

“But they followed all the protocols and we made sure that they were well isolated. From that we’ve slowed the spread down from the government side of things,” the minister said.

Urgent capacity required
Meanwhile, the National Pandemic Controller, David Manning, has ordered the immediate use of the Rita Flynn sporting complex in Port Moresby as a temporary field hospital.

Manning said the complex was urgently needed due to an upsurge in cases in the capital, which includes himself and two members of his family.

“The isolation ward at the Port Moresby General Hospital and the Gerehu hospitals are full and it is critical that Rita Flynn is made available as a temporary field hospital for covid-19 patients, in particular, so that both PMGH and Gerehu can continue to serve the public without risking the health of inpatients and staff.

“It is a matter of national importance that PNG continues to take strong measures to protect the health of our people,” said the Controller who is in isolation but continues to work.

New cases
The latest 34 cases were reported in the Western and New Ireland provinces, and the National Capital District.

PNG Health Authorities said all but five of these 34 cases showed symptoms of covid-19 while the rest were asymptomatic at the time of testing.

The Western Province reported 23 positive cases of which 20 are males and three females. The youngest of the 23 positive cases is 19 and the oldest is 61. Of the 23 cases, two showed symptoms of the virus while 21 were asymptomatic. All 23 cases are from the North Fly area.

In the New Ireland Province, a 57-year-old female is the latest to be confirmed positive. She was experiencing a cough, headache and running nose at the time of testing.

The country’s covid-19 cases as a result stands at 1111 with 10 known deaths.

Seventeen provinces including the Autonomous Region of Bougainville have reported cases.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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