The Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 says the Ministry of Health is running low on test kits stock levels nationwide, a situation health experts and activists have described as catastrophic.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Task Force co-chairperson Dr John Phuka said the few test kits available are being used to test only those that have Covid-19 symptoms.
By Wednesday evening, Malawi had 1 942 confirmed cases including 25 deaths. Of these cases, 710 are imported infections and 1 159 are locally transmitted while 73 are still under investigation.
But in the statement, Phuka said hospitals will no longer be offering Covid-19 testing unless someone displays symptoms.
He said: “The country had procured a consignment of additional kits long time back but because of shipment challenges, the stocks are expected to arrive in two weeks time.”
Phuka also urged those who have been in contact with Covid-19 patients to isolate themselves from the public for 10 to 14 days.
“Should they develop Covid-19 symptoms call the toll free number – 54 747 for the attention of health care worker,” he said.
While appreciating the challenge, health experts have said the situation may lead to more people getting infected, which will be catastrophic for the country.
Physicians Assistants Union of Malawi president Solomon Chomba said test kits are crucial in Covid-19 disease diagnosis confirmation as they detect both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients.
He said: “The shortage of kits will negatively affect the diagnosis rate of Covid 19 from the population which will further fuel undiagnosed local transmission. The expectation will be a surge of positive Covid 19 cases after the arrival of the kits.
“I support the advice to encourage all those in contact with Covid 19 confirmed cases to isolate themselves from the public.”
He said the logistical challenges are also likely to affect availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) like medical masks, but noted that there are some PPE like face shields and plastic aprons that are locally made.
On his part, health rights activist Maziko Matemba said it was sad that the test kits stock levels are low at the time the cases are soaring.
“But we are also encouraged by the level of transparency by the task force by disclosing this important issue. Still, they need to speed the processes of procurement,” he said.
Meanwhile, an infectious disease expert Dr Titus Divala said there is no need to panic because at the current stage, Covid-19 testing is not always vital.
He said: “Testing approach depends on epidemic management strategy and the strategy varies over time. Our strategy has always been: find all the diseased, and stop the epidemic. In this strategy, you test as much as possible, when you identify a case, you track and test their primary and secondary contacts, isolate and quarantine all, and stop the disease from jumping on to the next set of people. This is the approach Malawi has been using all along.”
Divala has since suggested seven steps to help fight Covid-19, including urging contacts of known Covid-19 patients to follow quarantine rules very strictly, wash hands with soap and wearing of face masks correctly.
Due to Covid-19, Malawi declared a state of National Disaster on March 20 2020 before registering its first three cases on April 2.