The Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) has announced the rollout of “free testing” sites for the public to access, a move the Public Service Union (PSU) applauds while it simultaneously calls on government to regulate COVID test prices provided by private institutions.
According to an MOHW release, the two testing sites, which are located at the Civic Center in Belize City and the Civic Center parking lot in Belmopan, are opened from 8:30 a.m to 2:00 p.m from Monday to Friday. They can be accessed as walk-in or drive-thru, and are available free of cost for individuals who are asymptomatic and require a negative COVID-19 test for their employer or to access government buildings.
As readers would recall, effective October 1st, a vaccine card or a negative COVID-19 test result is required for entry into government building. However, while the vaccine has always been free of cost, up until last week anyone who was not symptomatic or in close contact with an infected person would have needed to seek testing at a private facility that could have been charging as much as $400 per PCR Test and $150 for Rapid Test.
This week, we spoke to the President of the Public Service Union (PSU) Dean Flowers who urged the government to move swiftly to regulate the prices of those tests at private institutions.
“If this test becomes unaffordable and inaccessible to the public, then, it puts everyone in danger. So the heavy-handed approach that the government initially took was very much to the detriment of this country and not [helpful] to the front liner or the public officer that needed that negative test to access their work because people will continue to find ways around these regulations.”
According to Flowers, he views the cost of the COVID test at private institutions as equivalent to price gouging in the face of a state of emergency and no less a worldwide pandemic. He further proposed that the government continue to make COVID tests free of cost to the public and to roll out the testing sites countrywide as a means of driving down the cost at private institutions.
Flowers explained that the union is relieved and pleased that the government announced the roll-out of these testing sites, which now gives back public officers, citizens, and low-income families their rights to freedom of choice. While the PSU noted that they would have preferred the announcement before the October 1st regulations came into effect, it is nonetheless still welcoming and worthy of commending.
“We certainly were concerned about the proposed S.I. which sought to impose a mandatory test at the expense of the public. We wrote to the Ministry of Health on that and spoke publicly against it, because we were of the view that the Government had unilaterally tampered with the terms and conditions of public officers’ conditions of service when they decided to pass that mandate. Because they did those decisions unilaterally, we believe that they [government] would need to carry the cost of the decisions and public officers should not have been subjected to pay for a test to access their workplace, which is their right.”
Persons who are close contacts of infected persons, are symptomatic, or planning to travel are urged to continue to access testing at the Central Health Region or the Western Regional Hospital.
Drivers Behind the PCR Test Prices
Last week, The Reporter spoke to Dr. Marcelo Coyi, obstetrician and gynecologist at Belize Medical Associate and a member of the MOHW’s Task Force Group for COVID, about those prices, which as we’ve said earlier can be as high as $400 per test.
Coyi explained that the prices for rapid and PCR tests are indeed not regulated by the MOHW at this point, adding that government only currently regulates the type of tests that are allowed to be shipped into the country.
While there is no known control or regulated prices on the test, Coyi explained why they are expensive: “It has to be expensive because the machinery is expensive. It is imported and it is about US$30,000 to US$40,000. Then the reagents are just as expensive, but it is a very technical test because it involves DNA. For context, the PCR is a polymerase chain reaction test that requires very specialized machinery. Actually, they have only been available over the past four months because the United States wasn’t allowing the exportation of PCR machines and so now that is available. [Regarding] the rapid test, the actual test is about $35 to $40 for the test alone and so when you add all the human resources and the administrative cost … that is how it reaches the $75 mark.”
Readers might be aware that a couple of months ago MOHW had announced the discontinuation of testing for persons who are not classified as close contact of infected persons or those that do not display symptoms of the virus. In our interview with Dr. Coyi, he had explained that the reason the government began limiting PCR tests is because they are following a protocol. Moreover, there is the inescapable fact that the Ministry does not have the resources at hand to offer to test the entire population. Those resources would be especially stretched given the fact that individuals, under the new regulations, would require such tests every two weeks.
WHO’s take on it
It must be noted that the PSU’s call for increased accessibility to COVID tests is consistent with the World Health Organization (WHO)’s prescription.
In its Interim Guidance note published in June 2021, the WHO wrote:
“In settings where robust [Public Health and Social Measures] are otherwise in place to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, allowing the relaxation of some measures for some individuals may contribute to limiting the economic and social hardship of control measures. The differential “personal protective measures” for immune (fully vaccinated or recovered from infection) versus non-immune individuals will be referred to as individualized public health measures.”
The WHO would go on to briefly outline what it had termed as “Ethical Considerations” when it comes to implementing such individualized public health measures. Among those considerations, the global health agency called for these types of programs to be “proportionate and inclusive”.
“Before implementing individualized public health measures, governments … should, as much as possible, reduce barriers to vaccination; consider measures that least infringe of the rights and liberties of non-vaccinated individuals; and consider options for non-vaccinated individuals such as the results of reliable negative COVID-19 tests and making tests accessible to all (e.g. free testing once a week),” the WHO wrote.
“This may help ensure that measures for non-vaccinated individuals are proportionate and as socially inclusive (defined here as removing or reducing barriers that prevent people from participating in civil, social and economic life) as possible.”