Understanding screening and testing criteria for Covid-19


  • Focus
  • Sunday, 15 Mar 2020

IN RECENT weeks, the Health Ministry’s hospitals and clinics have been swamped with patients concerned that they had been in contact with Covid-19 patients.

These people were worried that they had been in the same building or meeting room or lift with a Covid-19 patient who has been reported in their working area.

In fact, according to the ministry, one company actually sent a whole bus load of of its employees to be screened and tests showed they were negative.

Too many people overwhelming the healthcare facilities would deprive those who really has the disease from getting screened and isolated, says Deputy Health director-general Datuk Dr Chong Chee Kheong.

“People should not crowd the public health facilities out of fear,” Dr Chong advises.

This is especially crucial now that the ministry is busy tracking the reported 14,500 over people who attended a religious mass gathering (tabligh ijtimah) at a mosque in Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur. This has added a great burden to the ministry’s medical teams.

While the ministry may screen through patients by asking questions at clinics or virtual clinics, Covid-19 throat swab tests will be done only on those who meet the criteria for patients under investigation (PUI) and close contacts, says Dr Chong.

“The ministry will only test PUI and close contacts that meet the criteria,” he says during the ministry’s media engagement session for disseminating information on Covid-19 in Putrajaya recently.

PUI are those who have symptoms and have returned from affected countries while close contacts are those who have been in contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient.Now, what is the criteria for “close contact”?

Dr Chong says that the recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta in the United States are different. While the distance for close contact is within one metre for the WHO’s definition, the CDC’s definition is two metres and with an exposure of 15 minutes to a Covid-19 case, he says.

“But in that one minute, if the patient has been coughing or sneezing, that will be a close contact,” he says of the ministry’s criteria.

“We try not to be too restrictive. We must also use our judgment.”

Dr Chong adds that in a meeting room, not all will be considered “close contact” either, and those who meet the criteria are usually the first two layers of people who sit or stand nearest to the confirmed case.

“We emphasise on close contact and not casual contact. That’s because the method of spread is droplets,” he says.

It is not necessary to test those who do not meet the criteria because tests that the ministry have done on such people had shown negative results, but they may be advised to self-quarantine, if necessary.

“The virus cannot live well outside the human body and easily dried up or inactivated by heat or destroyed by common household disinfectants,” he says.

To reduce congestion at 57 public health facilities nationwide that are offering screenings, the ministry has a “Tanya Doktor” (Ask the doctor) button on its website which the public can click on to ask questions about whether they need to be screened, he says.

For any information on Covid-19 and whether one needs screening, the public can also call the national Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre infoline at 03-8881 0200/ 03-8881 0600/ 03-8881 0700 or contact their respective district health offices.

But if those in the category that do not need screening are worried, the ministry has collaborated with the private sector for doctors to go to homes to collect samples of patients who have concerns about being infected with Covid-19.But the person will have to bear the cost of the test (about RM700) plus travel costs depending on the distance.

The screening programme can be accessed through the ministry’s 11 collaborating partners, whose contact details are available on the ministry’s website.

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