As the Kathmandu Valley turns into a COVID-19 hotspot, the Teku-based National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL) has stopped testing swab samples collected through contact tracing among Kathmandu residents citing violation of government-set criteria.

NPHL stopped testing swab samples collected through contact tracing by the local level governments in Kathmandu after the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) on October 18 announced that free PCR will be conducted only among certain groups that too on the basis of special recommendation.

As the state-run lab stopped free PCR tests, some local levels have started collecting money from the concerned persons to send their samples to private labs.

Since MoHP has handed the responsibility of contact tracing to local level authorities, the latter used to collect swabs samples from traced persons and send them to NPHL. However, contact tracing has come to a grinding halt at most local levels in Kathmandu after the lab stopped taking swab samples other than those classified by the government.

“As the lab would only test samples of certain groups that too after completing formal paperwork, we have not been able to test more than 600 people who were contact traced,” said Lalitpur’s Mahalakshmi Municipality Mayor Rameshwar Shrestha.

“Though we’ve asked asymptomatic people to stay in home quarantine, we are unable to test samples collected from symptomatic ones,” said Shrestha.

The Mayor said that his city had plenty daily wage workers who were unable to pay for their PCR test despite being symptomatic. “This has increased the risk of transmission within the municipality. So, we are planning to cover the expenses of those who cannot afford the cost for PCR test.”

According to MoHP, as many as 1,622 people in the Kathmandu Valley were confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19 on Sunday alone. This accounts for 57.43 percent of the total infected across the country. Among them, 1,362 are from Kathmandu district, 164 from Lalitpur, and 96 from Bhaktapur.

In the last 24 hours, more than 5,700 people have paid for PCR tests from private labs in Kathmandu alone.

Contact tracing has been largely affected across the country after MoHP announced that only the “poor, disabled, helpless, single women, senior citizens, frontline health workers, security personnel, and sanitation workers” can avail free PCR tests.

However, contact tracing was not exactly rigorously followed even before the government’s announcement. Sharada Hamal, a Kathmandu resident who along with his mother tested positive for COVID-19 on October 17, said that no government official had contacted him till date for contact tracing.

Similarly, Rita KC from Itahari along with her five-member family had tested positive for COVID-19 on October 18. But none of the people that had come in close contact with her family were either contacted or tested by the government, said KC.

Now that the state-run lab has stopped accepting swab samples, contact tracing has almost come to a grinding halt.

Suryabinayak Municipality of Bhaktapur had arranged a separate vehicle to make contact tracing effective and trained six people for the same. A team of municipal police and health workers led by the chief administrative officer would reach the houses of contact traced persons to collect swabs.

This process, however, has been stopped since the government announced that it will not conduct free PCR tests for even symptomatic persons. “We stopped contact tracing and collecting samples because NPHL did not want us to send samples,” said Suryavinayak Mayor Basudev Thapa.

Rajesh Kumar Gupta, information officer at NPHL, said the lab now required local levels to send evidence such as proof of citizenship in case of elderly and allowance card in case of poor citizens with the samples for free PCR tests.

Though NPHL earlier used to conduct between 1,500 and 2,000 tests daily on average, the lab tested only 253 samples on Saturday and 550 people in the last 24 hours. This means the general public, for lack of an option, are being forced to pay exorbitant fees for PCR test at private labs as the government would not do it for free.

Meanwhile, MoHP informed that private labs tested 1,519 swab samples on Sunday alone, three times more than NPHL. As per MoHP, Star Hospital has performed 853 PCR tests, Surya Health 974, KMC 726, and Decode conducted 721 PCR tests in the last 24 hours.