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Covid-19 tests to be offered on request

Dr Joseph Garcia. Photo by Johnny Bugeja.

Members of the public who have a GHA card can now request to be swabbed for coronavirus even if they have no symptoms.

The move is the latest effort to widen the scope of the GHA’s systematic testing of frontline and other workers in a bid to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus and so break the chain of transmission.

Already workers from 62 categories of jobs from the public and private sectors have been tested routinely, ranging from healthcare and law enforcement officers to workers in the retail and construction sectors.

Now, anyone aged over 16 and in possession of a GHA card can request a free test, which will be carried out by appointment in the Rooke testing facility with results delivered within 12 hours.

Dr Garcia said 6,682 tests had already been carried out as part of the systematic testing programme, with 33 asymptomatic positive results returned.

That indicates a “low incidence” of Covid-19 in Gibraltar, Dr Garcia, but comes as lockdown restrictions in many parts of Europe are eased and travel resumes.

In a number of countries including Spain, clusters of infection have emerged leading to localised lockdowns being reimposed.

“Our proud message is that our country is safe and we want it to stay that way,” he said.

“This wide sample will reassure both the community and visitors."

Dr Garcia said Gibraltar was “paused but poised” to reactivate its response to the virus if need be,

“If a second wave comes our way, Gibraltar is ready for it,” he said.

The Director of Public Health, Dr Sohail Bhatti, told the Chronicle the decision for broader testing was driven in part by scenes of large crowds at the beaches and local bars.

The decision comes as Public Health aims to increase the numbers tested to gather a clearer picture of the virus’ presence in the community, particularly now that Gibraltar is easing out of lockdown.

People with GHA cards and without any symptoms can ring the 200 41818 to request a test.

Those with symptoms should continue to ring the 111 number and the new service is for people who would like to know whether or not they have coronavirus.

Dr Bhatti added the nostril swab will be abolished due to the discomfort it causes and instead those being tested will just be swabbed on their throats.

The plan is to collect 500 samples a day and return results in four hours, which will ensure positive cases are isolated swiftly.

Dr Bhatti said currently close to 300 samples are being tested a day with results returned after 12 hours.

“We need to pounce quickly on any infection,” Dr Bhatti said.

“The first thing we need to do is we have to use the ‘searchlight’ which is our swabbing to see where we can find infection.”

“The brighter and broader the searchlight the more we will see, which is why we are aiming for up to 500 samples a day.”

“Which is quite a substantial chunk. We are going to 300 [a day] soon, but I want more.”

“The more I can see, the more certain I am that we are seeing a true picture and the less that I am worried that we are missing something.”

Dr Bhatti explained that in the early days, just a few months ago, swabbing was targeted at groups thought to be at high risk and those who were unwell.

These high risk groups included frontline workers in the Gibraltar Health Authority, Care Agency, the Royal Gibraltar Police and teachers.

“We continue to assess them, but given what’s happened on the beaches, club and bars etc, I have come to the view that actually we will need to do broader [testing],” Dr Bhatti said.

As the easing of lockdown and more people mingle, Dr Bhatti has felt testing needs to be more wide-ranging to give a more accurate image of the spread of coronavirus in Gibraltar.

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