Patna: It took more than 60 days for Bihar to achieve the target of testing for COVID-19 to 10,000 samples per day. On July14, the state tested 10,018 samples, exactly over two months after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (on May 13) instructed officials to scale up testing to 10,000 samples a day following the rise in COVID cases.
According to the official Twitter handle of the health department, Bihar tested 10,052 samples on July 15 and tested 10,245 samples on July 16, the third consecutive day when the state tested more than 10,000 samples per day.
Bihar started testing only around mid-March.However, this is not a big development as the state is still lagging in the testing rate so far.
Sensing this more than others, Nitish Kumar on Thursday, when the 16-day lockdown began in the state, directed officials to double the number of COVID tests from 10,000 to 20,000 per day. While the chief minsiter’s words may sound hopeful, the ground reality is different.
Nearly 10 days after Nitish Kumar instructed officials to scale up to 15,000 tests per day, Bihar had tested only 5,168 samples on July 7, as per official data .
Till date (July 16), Bihar has tested a total of 3,47,457 samples. With an estimated population of 12.5 crore, including thousands of migrant workers who have returned from other states, it has one of the lowest COVID testing records in the country. The state had been conducting little more than 2,000 tests per million population, which is the lowest compared with its neighbouring states.
“There is an urgent need to at least double daily if the government is serious about containing the spread of COVID in Bihar. Any further delay in increasing testing will cost the people and the state dear”, said a senior doctor of Patna-based Nalanda Medical College and Hospital, one of the three state government-run hospitals designated as COVID hospitals.
He cited the rising number of cases and feared that deaths may go up because most infected people were roaming, interacting and mixing in the community as they have not been identified and traced. ”It is the responsibility of the government to test more if not all to contain the spread of virus”, he added.
Dr Ajay Kumar, senior vice president of Indian Medical Association (IMA), Bihar, said the fresh lockdown imposed by the government from July 16 -31 is a good move if it goes for mass testing.
”The government should follow the worldwide principle to fight COVID by testing, tracing and treating,” Dr Kumar said.
As of Thursday , Bihar had 21,558 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 158 reported deaths. The state reported 1,385 cases, including 378 in Patna, on Thursday. This is the fourth consecutive day when Bihar reported more than 1,000 cases. On Tuesday, the state had recorded 1,432 cases, the highest single-day spike till date.
According to official data, till July 13, the state was testing below 10,000 samples per day. It had tested 9,129 samples on July 13, tested 9,251 samples on July 12 and tested 9,108 samples on July 11.
The state government has increased testing after a hue and cry by Opposition parties, including Left parties, over the slow testing despite surging COVID cases.
According to official data, Bihar tested 6,213 samples on July 6 and 6,799 samples on July 5. But on July 4, it tested 7,930 samples, 7,187 samples on July 3, 7,291 samples on July 2 and 7,799 samples on July 1.
Earlier, testing was quite low, as only 537 samples were tested on April 15, that went up to 1,446 tests on April 30. Similarly, only 1,695 samples were tested on May 15 and by May 31, this increased to 2,353 and 3,657 by June 15. After that, Bihar tested 7,906 samples on June 25, more than double within 10 days.
What is alarming is that even as COVID positive cases continue to rise sharply, the government seemed to have no plan to scale up testing, apart from issuing statements. Early this month, Nitish Kumar asked top officials to scale up testing to 15,000 per day. Later, Bihar Health Minister Mangal Pandey claimed to scale up testing to 20,000 per day when the state was actually struggling to even reach close to the 10,000 figure.
In early April, there were only two test facility centres. These were later increased to four, followed by six and then seven. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has been supplying kit for tests, but the state government has also purchased RNA extractors from a Singapore-based firm and others.
Meanwhile, sources in the health department said testing at some government-run laboratories was affected after some doctors and technical staff had tested positive, forcing a shutdown of all laboratories for a day or two last week. This resulted in a backlog of samples as well.
There are reports that people are running from one place to another for testing and have to wait for 5-7 days for the results.
Bihar health secretary Lokesh Kumar Singh claimed that the infection rate was low (of positive cases tested) and the recovery rate in Bihar was more than 67%, which is higher than the national average.
However, there are apprehensions that the government is “hiding” the reality, as it is has become a difficult task to get official information related to the COVID situation in the state, as of now.
Top officials of the health department are refusing to share any data other than the daily that only gives figures of the total number of test conducted, positive cases and recovery rate. Till recently, the department used to give two updates in a day.
There are no specific details of availability of testing kits, including viral transport medium kits (VTMs) — used to collect samples for tests, RNA extraction kits, infrared thermometers, PPE kits, three-ply masks, N95 masks and medicines. Similarly, no data is available of testing kit requirement and whether the state has adequate stocks. Unlike last month, the department has also stopped giving names of specific areas affected by COVID 19.
Opposition leaders have already been targeting the government for deliberately testing less to suppress the increasing cases in view of the upcoming Assembly polls later this year. They are alleging that the government is going slow because more tests could result in more positive cases. This is despite the chief minister stress on more testing.
Bihar Opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav tweeted, “Nitish Kumar Ji slept in his comfy bungalow for 100 days, didn’t do anything in 4 months of initial lockdowns & now fragmented lockdowns are being announced in several districts which is a testament to the fact that he has failed to contain the virus.”
Till the third week of June, government officials had attributed the spike in COVID positive cases to the return of thousands of migrant workers since early May.