As COVID-19 cases rise, Telangana govt. looks for new punching bags

After initially blaming the Centre it is now accusing ICMR-recognised private labs for failing to adhere to the testing norms

private labs, coronavirus, COVID-19, testing, Coronavirus outbreak, Supreme Court
The private labs are also accused of reporting less than half the tests they had conducted. Photo: iStock

Under attack for its inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the Telangana government has now found a new punching bag: Private Laboratories.

After initially blaming the Centre for being unhelpful in the fight against Covid-19, it is now accusing ICMR-recognised private labs for failing to adhere to the testing norms, leading to ‘false positives.’ The discrepancy in the positivity rates has triggered a fresh row.

The private labs, on the other hand, have a different story to tell. They complain of harassment and arm-twisting to limit the number of tests and suppress the findings to show that Covid-19 was under control.

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At present, there are 23 private diagnostic laboratories that have received ICMR’s permission to conduct tests for Covid-19. A majority of them had certification from the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL).

“We have stopped accepting samples since June 28, following oral orders from the government. We are not sure when we will resume testing,” said a senior executive at a leading diagnostic centre in Hyderabad.

No coordination

Lack of coordination between the state health department and the private labs has created utter confusion, leaving people angry and frustrated. Several users on social media platforms have been posting desperate messages, asking for help and complaining about the government’s lackadaisical approach.

Amid reports of uncooperative hospital authorities, shortage of hospital beds and lack of proper information, a hashtag “Where is KCR?” trended on Twitter for a few hours on Sunday. KCR, as the chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao is popularly known, and his ministers have been facing flak on social media platforms for their failure to control the situation.

With the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases, many people in Hyderabad are desperate to get tested at private diagnostic labs, as testing at government laboratories has been moving at a snail’s pace.

“The situation calls for intervention by the Centre like how it happened in Delhi following utter incompetence displayed by the Kejriwal government,” said a retired journalist and analyst S. Nagesh Kumar.

“Telangana government has exhibited neither the skill nor the inclination to roll back the disease in an organised manner like Kerala did,” he said.

In a media bulletin issued on June 27, the government said that the private labs were told to rectify “all their mistakes within 48 hours,” failing which their operations will be suspended.

There has been no update since then.

Telangana continued to witness a spike in cases, with the infection count touching 23,902 as on Sunday (July 5) and the death toll stood at 288.

Notices to labs

Over the weekend, the state government had issued notices to 13 private labs, raising questions about their testing protocol, infrastructure facilities, trained manpower and infection control measures.

“There are discrepancies in the data submitted by these 13 labs. The number of tests they were conducting was much more than their capacity. Due to this, the results may have gone wrong,” the State Director of Public Health Dr. G. Srinivasa Rao said.

He singled out a lab located at Himayatnagar in the city, saying it reported an “extremely high” sample positivity rate. “With 2,672 positive cases against 3,726 total samples tested, the positivity rate from this lab was 71.7 per cent—a gross variation and discrepancy in the notified positivity rate of Covid-19 till date,” the official said.

“The issue needs to be evaluated by an expert committee and until then the data of the said lab has been kept under abeyance. If this lab and other labs are found to be violating ICMR rules, we will take strict action against them,” Rao said.

Further, the health official also accused the private labs of conducting tests “for walk-ins” and collecting samples from different places in Hyderabad. “The government guidelines very clearly state that only symptomatic cases and patients admitted in hospitals should be tested. The private labs are not following ICMR guidelines,” Rao said.

Under-reporting

The private labs are also accused of reporting less than half the tests they had conducted. “There is also a possibility of contamination of samples leading to high positivity rate because safety measures and protocols are not followed meticulously,” said another official of the medical and health department.

The officials maintained that the positivity rate for a typical government or private laboratory was around 20- 25%. “We suspect the test results could have been contaminated and that’s why we held back those results, which will be studied in detail by an expert committee and released,” Rao said.

Last week, four expert teams from the medical and health department inspected the private labs and found “large scale violation of norms” in conducting COVID-19 tests. The teams examined various aspects like infrastructure, human resources, infection control measures and other facilities including general hygiene.

The teams went through the registers and data uploaded by the labs into ICMR and Telangana state portal and found a lot of discrepancies in them. Many of the labs were not taking safety measures such as staff not wearing personal protection equipment (PPE), safety cabinets not being available and lack of proper hygienic conditions. The staff conducting the tests for COVID-19 has not been trained properly in RT-PCR testing.

The inspection report pointed out that there was possibility of contamination of samples leading to high positivity rate because safety measures and protocols are not followed meticulously.

“We have given sufficient time to these laboratories to rectify the defects. Some of them rectified and some others are still doing it. If laboratories do not follow ICMR guidelines and do not correct discrepancies, then their recognition will be cancelled,” the health director said.

Minister frustrated

The Health Minister Etela Rajender said he was frustrated over the spurt in the number of coronavirus cases in the state.

“There is a drastic rise in coronavirus cases in Hyderabad because people are refusing to follow basic rules. Families are hosting birthday parties, organising engagement functions, or getting together at homes to celebrate a new birth. It takes just one among them who is infected to spread the virus to dozens of others and that is what is happening in Hyderabad,” he said.

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