While India has announced a nation-wide lockdown to check the spread of the novel coronavirus, many people are refusing to get themselves tested because of the social stigma attached to the infection, health experts say.
Some international passengers who were quarantined at a five-star hotel in Mumbai refused to undergo testing for coronavirus by Thyrocare staff on March 25, said Velumani A, the firm's founder, according to a report by The Hindu Businessline.
Thyrocare is one of the six labs cleared by the Indian Council of Medical Research to conduct COVID-19 tests in the country.
“On March 25, when news channels flashed the lab’s WhatsApp numbers for testing inquiries, our customer service representatives were flooded with 60 WhatsApp messages per second. I asked them to pass the screenshots on to executives, who called back at least 3,000 persons in one day and counselled them on the need for testing,” Velumani was quoted as saying in the report.
Thyrocare is currently testing in Mumbai, and Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) had asked the lab to collect samples from close to 2,000 persons who are currently quarantined in five-star hotels around the city airport.
“Because all hotels are out of business, the civic body is asking them to accommodate international passengers who have just arrived. Even after they finish a fortnight of quarantine, where will they go, they cannot travel because of lockdown restrictions,” he said.
Velumani, who is working round the clock with his team to facilitate clinical testing, further said the MCGM is not paying for testing samples while the Central government has capped testing rate at Rs 4,500 per sample.
Velumani is concerned about people living in rural areas as most of the labs are based in metropolitan cities. “Before putting a plan in place on how to test in remote rural areas, the government announced a lockdown. Migrant workers from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and so on have gone to far-flung villages of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha only last week. Some of them will act as asymptomatic carriers of the virus and aid in spreading it,” he said, according to the report.
As the transport has been restricted and demand for PPE has increased, it has become difficult for them to conduct testing. “PPE requirement is growing by ten times the number infected in the country. While supply is little, demand is high, and a PPE package that costs Rs 400 is now three times the price at Rs 1,200. Our supply comes from Bengaluru, and vendors are now asking for payments in advance. We are struggling with logistics,” he said.
Thyrocare’s phlebotomists are known for picking samples from door to door and are present in 4,000 to 5,000 talukas or blocks across India. But, Velumani says, the challenge lies in training them for throat swab collection as it is unethical to collect blood samples and throat swabs in the same collection centre. So they need proper infrastructure to make separate collection facilities.
“The ratio of blood to throat swab collection up till now was 1000:1. Throat swabs are only collected in case of respiratory disorders in hospital set-ups. We have never seen a condition as infectious as COVID-19 before. So, my technicians are very scared to pick up samples without adequate PPE. We trained 25 technicians in a day and are scaling it up every day,” he said.
Velumani has requested people to quarantine themselves if they develop any mild symptoms. If things worsen, they must admit themselves and be put on a ventilator. People should not get cheated by in-house doctors of some private labs who recommend COVID-19 tests to make money, he added.