Papua New Guinea will enter a month-long national isolation in an effort to stop a spiraling Covid-19 outbreak that threatens to rip apart the country’s fragile health system “like a tornado,” health officials say, closing hospitals and leaving rooms understaffed.
Hospitals across the country have already been forced to close wards and departments, overwhelmed by a combination of staff infected with the coronavirus, increased demand from patients and drastic budget cuts.
David Ayres, country director for Marie Stopes PNG, said dozens of healthcare workers across the country had been infected with Covid-19, hired for their work.
“The healthcare system here was fragile to begin with. Frontline health services are often delivered late, sometimes cannot be delivered at all, due to logistical or funding constraints, ”Ayres said from Port Moresby.
“When there is a tornado like this that tears at the heart of the healthcare system, the potential for calamity is enormous. That’s what scares us all right now. “
PNG pandemic controller David Manning announced that PNG would enter a four-week national isolation starting Monday, with schools closed and only essential travel allowed across the country.
Masks in public places would also be mandatory.
Manning said PNG needed to adopt “tough control measures,” but isolation is being imposed in the hope of avoiding a more extreme lockdown, which would shut down businesses and markets, paralyzing the country’s economy.
By global standards, the number of confirmed cases in PNG is low: 2,351. But the number of cases is increasing rapidly and fewer than 55,000 tests have still been performed in Papua New Guinea (population close to 9 million) throughout the pandemic.
In many places outside the capital, Port Moresby, tests are not carried out. PNG government sources say the actual case rate could be 10 times the official figure.
Port Moresby remains the center of the outbreak, with more than 1,000 confirmed cases. Courts and government offices closed after judges and MPs fell ill, and more than 100 workers at the country’s largest hospital, including doctors and nurses, are in isolation with confirmed infections.
But Manning said broader isolation measures were needed and that the government was prepared to impose “targeted aggressive interventions to determine the best way to stop these increases in Covid-19, not just in the city, but in those provinces that are currently experiencing increases in Covid “. -19 cases ”.
The Ok Tedi mine, where tests have revealed massive infection rates among workers, suspends operations for at least fifteen days “to protect its workforce, communities and operations from Covid-19.” The personnel will be repatriated to their provinces of origin.
Vital to PNG’s economy, the closure of the mine will cost PNG’s treasury more than 210 million Kina, about US $ 58 million.
Dr Daoni Eserom, Incident Manager for PNG’s National Control Center, said the Port Moresby state funeral of PNG’s First Prime Minister and Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare and his burial at Wewak in East Province Sepik, attracted thousands of mourners from across the country for the last time. week. Now it is feared that those monuments could act as super spread events, spreading the virus throughout the archipelago.
“We are going to have a very serious outbreak on all the islands, and with what is happening in Wewak, in Sepik, the burial and the ceremonial duel of our great chief, we hope that many more numbers will increase, especially in Sepik. “
PNG’s largest hospital, Port Moresby General, is at risk of being overwhelmed by the growing number of cases.
“When the general hospital staff reaches levels where the emergency department cannot maintain service, then its doors will be closed,” wrote the hospital’s chief obstetrician and gynecologist, Glen Mola, in The Guardian.
“Then we will have people who have car accidents, stab wounds, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, who die in the main parking lot or who are sent home to their fate.
“We urgently need a vaccine, but by the time it reaches us it may be too late to save the Port Moresby health service.”
The hospital’s executive director, Dr. Paki Molumi, said the wards were already full and the hospital was unable to isolate Covid patients from the general hospital population.
“We are overloaded. This is beyond our ability. “
Other hospitals across the country, including Mount Hagen, have already closed their wards due to massive budget cuts. Some hospitals have received only a third of the money needed to stay open and have been forced to interrupt services just as Covid cases are on the rise.
Eight thousand doses of AstraZeneca vaccine from Australia’s national stockpiles will be shipped to PNG next week, and Australia has also requested, and will pay, 1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine for administration to PNG. An RAAF flight landed in Port Moresby on Wednesday delivering tents to be set up at Port Moresby General Hospital to classify Covid-19 patients.
Queensland has started a mass vaccination program for the residents of its islands in the Torres Strait, some of which are 4 km from the PNG mainland. Traditional travel between PNG villages and Australian islands, generally without restrictions, has been banned since March last year, but fears persist that the virus could reach Australia via cross-strait travel.
Australia will also begin vaccinating PNG residents in the Western Province of PNG on Australia’s northern border.
On Thursday morning, Queensland Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk reported that six of the eight new coronavirus cases imported into the state in the last 24 hours came from PNG.
Queensland now has 48 active cases of Covid-19, all hospitalized, but with no reported community transmission.
“Until everyone has the two doses of the vaccine, we will continue to see the risks of quarantine in hotels,” Palaczszuk said. “We have these highly contagious strains in our hospital… we are doing everything we can to contain this virus. We don’t want him in the community ”.
Flights from PNG to Cairns have been stopped and the number of passengers flying to Brisbane is limited.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism