‘Up to 10,000 people could be waiting for COVID-19 swab tests’

There could be 10,000 people still waiting to take COVID-19 tests, as swab centres in Malta are unable to cope with requests, with potentially infected people being told to wait for seven to 10 days while they remain unquarantined.

The Medical Association of Malta (MAM) President Martin Balzan told The Shift that people who call the COVID-19 helpline are being told to wait for some 10 days before undergoing the test, as centres are overwhelmed.

“This means that we’re possibly looking at a waiting list of up to 10,000 people or more, considering that authorities are carrying out more than 1,000 swabs each day.”

The Shift spoke to Balzan after several people called the newsroom alarmed at the waiting time for them to be tested. The MAM President warned of serious repercussions should the waiting list increase further.

“Having people possibly carrying COVID-19 symptoms, and left to fend without obligatory quarantine, is dangerous and can have very serious repercussions. In 10 days people who feel slightly better will go out. How can you contain that?”

Balzan noted that there may also be people being quarantined for 10 days for no reason.

“In June, the authorities were carrying out 1,000 swabs a day. Now we’ve reached around 1,700 swabs daily. Having to wait for 10 days can only mean that there’s possibly thousands of swab tests waiting to be carried out,” Balzan added.

On 6 August, for instance, health authorities conducted 1,769 swab tests. On Wednesday, authorities conducted a record number of swabs on 1,839 people. Yet, the waiting time has not diminished.

Due to the long waiting list for swab tests, the actual number of daily reported cases is not accurately represented, according to Balzan.

“MAM has been campaigning against mass events because they overwhelmed the swabbing centres, which is one of Malta’s most successful tools,” he said.

Balzan warned that if the authorities were not careful, Malta could face a devastating situation, similar to what occurred in Lombardy where hospitals and health centres were unable to keep up with the surge in cases.

Balzan applauded the government’s efforts when it prepared hospitals with beds and equipment, but he remains concerned: “I only hope that the hospital wards and the staff at Intensive Care Units will manage to keep up with a rise in demand.”

So far, fewer than one in 10 patients have needed to be hospitalised. On 6 August, three patients out of the 267 active cases were receiving care in hospital.

“We are facing problematic numbers started by mass events. The government’s main assets against the virus were the ability to track and isolate. Mass events make this process close to impossible,” Balzan told The Shift.

Malta’s R-factor (reproduction rate) has now surpassed 1, the Health Authorities have said, which means that every infected person is infecting at least one other.

The R-factor is a key indicative figure of contagion, which countries across the globe have been trying to keep as low as possible. During multiple press conferences in March and April, Professor Charmaine Gauci had insisted on the importance of ensuring that this number remains below 1.

With the rise in COVID-19 cases, countries in Europe are striking Malta off the quarantine “green list”. After Ireland, Latvia and Lithuania struck Malta off the list of safe countries to travel to, the UK is now also considering the move.

A report in the Telegraph on Thursday said Malta would receive an enormous blow should the delisting occur. More than 650,000 British tourists travelled to Malta in 2019.

Following the Prime Minister’s meeting with social partners on Thursday, the government announced that two new swab centres will be opened. The authorities did not specify when this would happen.

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