MOH Rejects Claims of Poor Handling of COVID-19

Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Francis Kateh

-- Says guides were not let down after Liberia was declared coronavirus free last year and thanked Indian businessmen Jeety and Sethi for oxygen donations

The Ministry of Health has defended its handling of COVID-19 against criticism that it became complacent after containing the first and second waves of the virus.

Of late, health authorities have been criticized and accused of allowing infected COVID-19 passengers to enter the country due to poor screen and testing measures instituted at the Robert International Airport. According to critics, testing protocols introduced by the Ministry of Health and the National Public Health Institute at the airport were disappointing and lacked coordination, leading to a situation where travelers could not get test results on time.

“As a result, many people entered the country with the new strain of the virus that has spread uncontrollably,” the public has speculated. However, the Deputy Minister of Health and Liberia’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Francis Kateh, has dispelled such criticism and defends the ministry’s testing strategy at the airport and its handling of the third wave.

Dr. Kateh noted that health authorities never relaxed any measures intended for COVID-19, even when the country’s first wave came to an end.  Instead, Dr. Kateh says they beefed up preventive measures, which protected the country from the devastating impact of the virus.

“We had been very, very proactive from the day the coronavirus came into this country, but there is no country that has a perfect response plan for a pandemic,” Dr. Kateh said. “If there were a perfect response plan, western countries would not be badly impacted. No matter how you plan, there will always be a gap and, once identified, we take measures to correct them.”

Dr. Kateh noted that passengers were required to show a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test taken within 72 hours of departure and to also undertake an additional test upon their arrival at the airport, and if anyone was tested positive on arrival, they were immediately transferred to the hospital for further assessment.

“We put in a system that anyone coming from those higher burden countries should come with a negative PCR test result. Still, we made it mandatory that they isolate themselves in a recommended precautionary observation center at their own cost for observation.

“They were observed and monitored for ten days, and those that came down with the virus were taken to the hospital for treatment,” Dr. Kateh added. “Before anyone is released, they have to be tested negative. It is not true that health authorities have never allowed anyone who came into the country to go without being screened properly.”

Dr. Kateh, however, admitted that there were some weaknesses in the post-pandemic protocols, but corrective measures were instituted once identified. “It was not that grave or severe.  Even during this period, measures were put in place to mitigate any shortcomings. None of the accusations against us is true,” he said.

In a related development, the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) has said it has begun to receive several complaints of extortion and fraud from the public relating to its COVID-19 testing and results. “We take these complaints extremely seriously and have commenced an internal review. We believe that these complaints, if true, emanate from sample collectors who create new codes and submit different test samples for individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19,” NPHIL said in a statement on June 6, 2021.

The statement added that, as a result, “there will be changes to our system aimed at clamping down on fraud. Any staff caught in this process will be immediately dismissed and turned over to the appropriate authority to face prosecution. Individuals caught paying for changed test results are also going to be prosecuted.”

COVID-19 Update

More than 2,000 infections have been recorded within two months, and the death rate stands at 134; making Liberia one of the countries with the lowest per capita death tolls.

Despite the surge in infections, Liberia is reporting more recoveries than deaths. But the recent outbreak of the coronavirus crisis has blown past the scale of the first and second waves.  This has forced the government to reintroduce COVID-19 protocols, including mandatory wearing of masks in public places, social distancing, and handwashing.

Of late, Coronavirus tests conducted by the National Public Health Institute (NPHIL) have had a positive rate of 20 to 30 percent, and if more tests are carried per day, the number of infected people would be more.   The third wave is driven by the Alpha and the Delta variants, with European scientists estimating that the former is 40 to 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7).

Experts say Delta spreads faster and more easily because of mutations that help it latch onto cells in the body. While several studies have shown that vaccines are slightly less effective against Delta, they are still highly effective – but only after the second dose.

‘No oxygen shortages’

Meanwhile, Dr. Kateh has also denied reports that during the earlier period of the third wave, health authorities were experiencing oxygen shortages. Dr. Kateh added that whenever doctors go into a unit, they have to use oxygen and other medical consumables.  “So, it doesn’t matter how many you have, as long as people become ill, you use more and it burdens the system. “

“At no time have we ever experienced anything like oxygen shortage. The thing here is, we always send an alarm that we need more PPE, oxygen, and other medical consumables,” Dr. Kateh added. “From the start of the pandemic, Upjit Singh Sachdeva (Jeety) and Sethi Brothers have been supplying us with Oxygen, while we procure others to fill our capacity.”

The Liberian Chief Medical Officer added that the only thing they ran out of earlier at Starbase were tanks to store the oxygen, but the problem according to him has since been solved. “If you have more than a dozen persons that are oxygen dependents, and you multiply that number six times in 24 hours, you know the volume of oxygen that has been used,” Dr. Kateh clarified.

“Even if the tanks are empty from the treatment unit to the factory where it is being refilled, there will be some sort of delay due to traffic congestion around Freeport. So to solve the problem, we do not allow oxygen to run out.  We go to the factory frequently to fill and after filling, we go back with addition,” Dr. Kateh explained.

He added, “While it is true that we are doing everything we can, the humanitarian gesture of Jeety and Sethi Brothers has enabled us to save more lives and will continue to do so.  Their gesture has been very excellent and in the absence of that, we could have had too many dead bodies.  We are so grateful for that.”

Dr. Kateh further disclosed that most of the oxygen plants at various government and private hospitals are down, but assessments have been carried out to repair those plants. “Those with minor repairs will be fixed.  Redemption has its oxygen plant, likewise JFK, but their plant is down. Also, Phebe hospital has another plant but it is also down like Jackson F. Doe in Nimba County. This is the same with the J.J. Dossen Hospital in Maryland,” Dr. Kateh noted.