Low Covid-19 testing rate: Fees, fear, lack of awareness to blame
Panchagarh, a bordering district, is home to 11 lakh people. But the number of daily Covid tests in the country's northernmost district hardly gives any indication of its population.
The data provided by the health directorate says it all: only nine people turned up for Covid test in the district in 24 hours till 8:00am yesterday, and two of them were found to be carrying the virus.
This means the virus positivity rate there is 22 percent, much higher than the national positivity rate.
The number of tests conducted the day before was 10, and three of those were positive. On Sunday, the same number of people got their tests done and one was positive.
This is the picture of Covid testing in the rural hinterlands though many of the districts outside the capital are witnessing a spike in both infections and deaths.
Health officials at the grassroots level said they have the capacity of testing as many as 300 samples a day in each district, and there is no shortage of testing kits.
But people with symptoms are not coming forward to get their tests done mainly due to ignorance and fear of isolation if detected positive for the virus, they said.
The Tk-100 fee is another reason for the low number of tests in the rural areas as many poor people feel discouraged to get tested because of it, they said suggesting waiver of the fee for the poor.
Md Fazlur Rahman, civil surgeon of Panchagarh, said they have been trying to motivate people to go for tests as the deadly virus is spreading in the bordering district. But people don't seem to care.
"Despite all our efforts, people are not coming forward to get Covid tests done. At times, we force them to do so, but this should not be the case. People should willingly do it because the more tests are done, the clearer the picture will be," he told The Daily Star.
The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) data shows that 16 districts recorded less than 50 tests each in 24 hours till 8:00am yesterday.
Worryingly, no Covid test was done in Laxmipur and Shariatpur.
In stark contrast to the situation in the two districts, 10,355 tests out of the total 23,265 across the country were conducted in the capital.
The national positivity rate was 14.27 percent yesterday while the overall rate was 13.40 percent.
Health experts said if the number of tests doesn't go up, it would not be possible to get the real picture of virus transmission in the country.
The government has to devise a mechanism to increase tests at any cost, they said, adding that asymptomatic Covid patients will inadvertently spread the virus unless they are tested and isolated.
Prof Nazrul Islam, member of the National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, said they have repeatedly recommended increasing the number of tests, but unfortunately that has not happened.
"If a person is found Covid positive, all the family members should be tested. Isolation and quarantine should be enforced strictly…," he told this newspaper yesterday.
Nazrul said less than 50 tests in a district is not acceptable as it would not give the real picture of the Covid situation.
"It's true that people are reluctant, but the government should motivate them to go for Covid tests," he noted.
Asked, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said they have been trying to increase the number of Covid tests.
"We are trying our best but people have to come forward," he told The Daily Star yesterday.
In reply to a query, he said the government would consider waiving the Covid testing fee for the poor across the country if the district administrations make recommendations in this regard.
Last week, the health ministry asked its officials in several bordering districts to provide free Covid test to the poor.
TESTING AT DISTRICT LEVEL
Around 20 lakh people live in Habiganj, but only 46 people were tested in the district yesterday. Of them, nine tested positive for the virus.
On Monday, 68 samples were tested and the results of five came positive.
Dr AKM Mustafizur Rahman, civil surgeon of Habiganj, said they have the capacity to collect 200-300 samples a day but people have to come to the centres to get tested.
"There are many poor people in the district. If the testing fee is waived, more people would be interested to get tested," he said.
Jhalakathi is another district where the number of tests was very low.
Against more than eight lakh people in the district, only 63 samples were tested yesterday.
On Monday, only five people got tested and two were Covid positive.
The civil surgeon's office said they have enough testing kits.
"We've never turned away anyone seeking Covid test. But people are still not aware of the situation. They care very little about the virus," said Ratan Kumar Dhali, civil surgeon of the district.
He also suggested waiving the testing fee for the poor to encourage them to get tested.