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By Gemma Handy

Efforts to bolster the nation’s fight against the coronavirus are being hindered by a lack of staff and shortages of a key substance needed to carry out Covid-19 tests.

Health chiefs admitted on Tuesday that while the long-awaited Margetson Ward at the former Holberton Hospital is ready for use as a quarantine and isolation unit, there was a shortfall in workers to man it.

“We are pretty much at the point where we could move in,” Medical Director of Mount St John’s Medical Centre, Albert Duncan, told a press conference.

“The problem right now is just trying to get the staff together, because staff have to be split between Mount St John’s and Holberton.”

Authorities are striving to equip the long-delayed facility with the necessary workforce, he said.

Duncan added that he anticipated the repurposed ward would be ready for operation by Monday.

That cannot come soon enough for those who fear the nation is woefully unprepared for dealing with its biggest crisis in modern history.

And this week, anxiety increased further still as the virus claimed its first local victims – two more names added to the international death toll which now tops 87,000.

Up to today, samples taken from people suspected of having contracted the illness were still being flown to Trinidad for testing.

The government has come under fire for failing to get local testing underway sooner, including from opposition politicians.

“The Minister of Health and the Chief Medical Officer appear to be contradicting each other on the availability of machines and testing capacity,” said UPP leader Jamale Pringle on Tuesday. “The government must tell the people exactly what we have, and when and from whom it was acquired.”

Hold-ups to testing ability appear to be due to a shortage of reagents – substances used to extract the virus’s genetic material so it can be studied more easily.

That’s a picture mirrored across the globe from Europe to the US and Middle East. Many countries have reported trouble acquiring enough test kits and accompanying materials to cope with the rising number of infections.

Vital equipment is on island however – in the shape of two PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines which search for the presence of Covid-19 in swabs taken from patients.

“And we have started the process of installation,” Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas said.

Remote training for local staff will follow.

“We have some of the reagents,” the CMO continued. “We are hoping that once the rest of the reagents get here later his week, we could start testing very soon.”

However, a statement from Caricom sent out on Wednesday spoke to a paucity of reagents across the region.

The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) – tasked with carrying out tests for suspected virus cases in several Caricom member states – is experiencing delays in receiving the chemicals, it said. The availability of test kits is also a challenge.

“CARPHA assured the Caribbean Community health ministers that, along with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), it was working to address the procurement of the necessary materials and equipment to avert any shortages as a result of the delay and cancellation of orders made repeatedly since January,” the Caricom statement added.

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