Shortage of staff at Government lab caused delays in test results
Staff shortages at the Government’s coronavirus test centre was yesterday blamed for delays that halted much of the scheduled return to school and left the airport in “chaos”, The Royal Gazette understands.
The log jam for test results out meant just a handful of schools opened as planned at the start of term on Wednesday.
This came after some travellers said there was “chaos and confusion” at the airport on New Year’s Day as worried passengers waited for overdue Covid test results which were needed to fly.
A source familiar with the breakdown in the test system, who asked not to be identified, said the delays “could have been avoided” if the Government had not insisted on a tight schedule for tests for pupils and staff as the island headed into a spike in infection numbers.
The source said that ministers were warned by staff at the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory that it would be “overwhelmed” by the 5,400 school staff and pupils who required tests.
They also highlighted cutbacks in response team personnel, which left lab staff unable to cope with the additional workload.
The MDL was said to be well equipped and stocked to handle another outbreak.
But the source said: “The real lack of resources is people.
“There were not enough people because of money and the cost of testing.”
MDL had to change test procedures, which included not pooling tests but testing individually, which raised the workload as the island’s case numbers began to increase around Christmas.
Some staff also had to isolate as contacts of people who had tested positive and others were on holiday over the festive season.
The source said lab staff suggested a return to remote learning for schools to ease the crisis.
It was highlighted that Omicron was known to be very contagious and that, combined with, insufficient lab staff, mean problems turning around tests were “unavoidable”.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health said last night: “All of our healthcare teams are under extreme demands because of the Omicron outbreak, and just like other organisations around the island, we have experienced some staff shortages at the MDL.
“However, our MDL team are working through the shortages and are being provided with the support to meet the current demands.”
The delays in sending out results came as more than 500 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, which pushed the number of active infections past 900.
There are, however, just two people in hospital, neither of them in intensive care.
The health ministry said it had got back 9,532 test results between last Wednesday and Saturday, with 516 of them positive for the coronavirus.
There were 176 classified as from overseas and 113 as on-island transmissions. The sources of the other 227 cases are under investigation.
The problems with test results caused confusion earlier this week as parents took to social media to question the delays as they prepared for the expected return to classroom learning.
The Government announced a “staggered opening of schools for term two” – with no middle or senior schools opening as parents and pupils awaited coronavirus test results.
Ministers had earlier insisted in-school learning would go ahead as planned on Wednesday despite safety concerns from the Bermuda Union of Teachers.
The BUT warned it was not safe for pupils and their members to return to school because of the latest surge in Covid-19 cases.
The Ministry of Education had said teachers would return on Tuesday with pupils scheduled to return the next day.
Schools that are open are operating under Phase 2 regulations.
Susan Jackson, the Opposition shadow education minister, said: “We are almost two years into the pandemic and, Bermuda, having navigated through four waves already should, by now, have Government systems firmly in place to avoid situations such as these which have recently occurred at the airport and returning to school.
“It's unacceptable that those requiring Covid testing have long wait times for testing and results when Government is fully aware of increased demand.
“There is no excuse for Government not to have sufficient test and lab staff. There's no excuse for Government to be operating a failing e-mail notification system and an overwhelmed telephone helpline at this juncture.”