Coronavirus cases in Papua New Guinea double in days amid fears for health system

Port Moresby hospital hit by staff shortages after emergency department workers test positive, bringing case tally to 62

Coronavirus cases in Papua New Guinea have nearly doubled in a weekend, with the emerging pandemic threatening to overwhelm the country’s already-fragile healthcare system.

The pandemic has, so far, been largely suppressed in the archipelagic nation, with low infection rates and only one death – of an already seriously-ill patient – linked to Covid-19.

But authorities fear persistent community transmission, particularly in the crowded capital Port Moresby, could soon see the virus running unchecked.

A fortnight ago, the country had recorded just 11 cases of Covid-19. This jumped to 32 by Friday last week, and to 62 by Sunday.

Now, 80% of PNG’s Covid cases have been recorded in the past 10 days.

There are concerns, too, that the real spread of the virus is far greater than officially recorded. Outside Port Moresby, where the bulk of cases have been confirmed, testing is “very limited”, according to the government.

The deputy controller of PNG’s national pandemic response has already said the country’s Covid-19 isolation facility – established at the national netball centre in Port Moresby – could be overrun by the end of the week. “[That centre] has a 72-bed capacity. When we reach the capacity, we may have to consider other possibilities, including home quarantine,” Dr Paison Dakulala said.

And there are continuing concerns about the country’s main hospital, Port Moresby General after the onsite laboratory where Covid-19 tests were being conducted suffered an outbreak this month. The government has ordered an inquiry into how staff working with samples became infected, and now two emergency department staff have reportedly tested positive.

Staff have repeatedly raised concerns about their own safety, a lack of adequate personal protective equipment and staff shortages sparked by the need to quarantine some health workers.

The hospital’s chief executive, Dr Paki Molumi, said patient care had been affected by the shortages and urged emergency department workers not to be deterred by the virus.

“Our challenge is to continue to attend to all normal emergencies to save more lives, and at the same time ensure we and our patients are safe from Covid-19” Molumi said.

A statement posted online by the hospital confirmed the emergency department would be moved to a foyer, which is “ventilated by open air and spacious”. Consultation clinics and pharmacy services will be moved to the hospital carpark in coming days.

Government leaders have been warning for weeks PNG is ill-equipped to deal with an unchecked pandemic.

The governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, told Australia’s ABC that the capital faced “a situation that we dreaded, simply because of the impact of the virus and also our capacity to respond”.

“We simply don’t have the capacity, we don’t have enough space in isolation facilities, in the hospital, we don’t have enough medical officers and we don’t have enough equipment,” he said.

Face masks have already been made compulsory in the capital, and new social distancing measures are expected to be announced later this week, with possible restrictions on schools and public transport.

A curfew from 10pm to 5am is also set to be re-introduced in Port Moresby, and domestic travel between cities or islands will be prohibited for all but essential reasons.


Ben Doherty Pacific Editor

The GuardianTramp

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