Doctors worry as populous Indian state struggles with coronavirus tests

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A police officer uses a megaphone advising people to vacate the roads after the lockdown by West Bengal state government to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kolkata, India March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Doctors say authorities in India‘s West Bengal state are slowing down the detection of coronavirus cases with a cumbersome, bureaucratic testing process that is putting health workers at risk.

Experts have flagged inadequate testing as a concern across India, where more than 10,000 of the 1.3 billion population have been found to have the virus.

But a dozen doctors, including representatives of three medics’ groups, told Reuters the situation in West Bengal was particularly dire.

At around 3,000 tests for more than 90 million people, West Bengal has done just 33.7 tests per million, compared to a national average of around 156.9 per million, and 442 per million in the western state of Rajasthan.

Officials from West Bengal’s health department declined to comment but Derek O’Brien, a leader of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress party, said federal authorities had not provided enough testing kits.

“No state has the mandate to get the kits on their own,” he said.

India‘s federal health ministry did not immediately reply to questions, but officials have previously said that all states are dealt with uniformly.

And Dr Shanta Dutta, who heads the federally-controlled main testing laboratory for West Bengal, said it had the capacity to conduct around 1,000 tests a day, but was not receiving that many samples submitted by medics.

But doctors complain that state authorities’ approval is needed for each test, and is regularly refused, meaning that patients suspected to be suffering from the highly contagious respiratory illness COVID-19 are not being isolated soon enough.

“If you suspect COVID and send the samples, either they are refused, or the report comes back after three to four days,” said Dr Arjun Dasgupta from the West Bengal Doctors Forum, which represents 19,000 doctors.

Services in at least four major government hospitals and two private facilities in the state capital Kolkata have been hit after doctors and nurses came into contact with patients who later tested positive, doctors and a state official said.

Some doctors also believe coronavirus deaths are not being fully reported, with only a state-appointed committee allowed to declare if a patient has died from COVID-19.

Dr Pratim Sengupta, a nephrologist in Kolkata, wrote on Facebook that, even when coronavirus patients were dying with symptoms of respiratory failure, the committee was not citing COVID-19 as the cause of death.

“It’s open shameless false play with the truth,” Sengupta wrote, sharing an X-ray of the lungs and a CT scan from a coronavirus patient declared to have died of renal failure.

O’Brien said all national testing guidelines were being followed, and denied that information was being suppressed. “There is absolutely total transparency,” he said.

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