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No let-up on coronavirus test lag, top scientist warns

Carika Weldon, executive director at the Molecular Diagnostic and Research Laboratory (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

A two-day lag for coronavirus test results from the island’s main laboratory is expected to continue, the scientist in charge warned yesterday.

Carika Weldon said that positive cases for the virus at the Molecular Diagnostic and Research Laboratory had outstripped small gains in staff numbers.

She added: “It’s been a revolving door.”

Dr Weldon, a geneticist and science adviser to the Government, first highlighted staff problems at the start of the month when soaring caseloads overwhelmed capacity.

She said: “We were told to cut staff as of December 31, which was right at the cusp of when things got bad — that was the last day for two staff, who are now being brought back.

“It took about a week to get new contracts done, and we got back two people on Saturday. One is now out with Covid.”

A new hire, scheduled to start work last Friday, was unable to bolster the staff after they tested positive for the coronavirus.

A volunteer who joined the MDL team last week also came down with the coronavirus.

Another “completely new” member of staff started on Monday but needed to be trained.

MDL’s staffing shortfall coincided with soaring case numbers, driven by the more transmissible Omicron variant.

Active infections passed 1,600 in Monday’s update, but there are few people in hospital even though the numbers were on course to surpass the peak of the fourth wave last autumn.

Dr Weldon, who has issued her own updates on Twitter, admitted: “It feels like we’re not getting anywhere.”

Her Twitter post yesterday confirmed that the lab was still at least two days behind on test results — and predicted that the situation would not improve in the short term.

Dr Weldon said: “Our only real glimmer of hope is that usually the Saturday and Sunday counts are lower, which allows us to get through them more quickly, but then we get to Monday.

“The only way we’re really going to get through this is when everyone’s back, or if we get an influx of medical folks as volunteers.”

She added that the situation was worsened after one of the lab’s two PCR test processing machines broke down this week.

Dr Weldon said: “It shouldn’t slow down testing unless something happens to the other machine, but it’s not ideal.”

Spread of Omicron variant still a tough forecast

Yesterday marked a month since health officials identified Bermuda’s first case of the Omicron strain of the coronavirus in someone with no travel history.

Carika Weldon, the scientist leading the fight against Covid-19, said: “This means it still has not been in the community that long.

“We should just hold tight and watch it to see what happens.”

Dr Weldon said the characteristics of the Omicron variant were “very different from other outbreaks”.

She explained: “Its numbers seem to jump, stay there a few days, then jump again.

“I can’t say from this whether it’s going to jump up more or start to go down.”

She added she had discussed a drive to get more medical volunteers with David Burt, the Premier.

Dr Weldon said: “What we need is to operate 24-7. If we could have five, six, maybe seven volunteers, we should catch up.”

Mr Burt apologised this week for test delays around New Year’s Day that caused huge problems for travellers and sabotaged plans to reopen public school classrooms.

Teachers and school staff had been expected to back to work on January 4, with pupils to return the next day.

But several schools still remained shut this week after PCR test capacity was overwhelmed by the flood of tests needed for staff and pupils.

Mr Burt said on Monday that the Government was convinced “the best place for students to be is in school learning in classrooms”.

Mr Burt added that there had been “a difference of opinion” over recommendations on what to do, which included two or three weeks of remote learning before children went back to schools.

Dr Weldon said the remote learning advice had not come from her.

She added: “I get that schools are better with children in.

“My whole stance was, if we’re basing going back on PCR tests, it was just not going to happen.

“Yes, it was said that schools should be remote, but that was the only alternative.”

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Published January 12, 2022 at 7:41 am (Updated January 12, 2022 at 7:41 am)

No let-up on coronavirus test lag, top scientist warns

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