COVID-19 pandemic control centre’s critical functions ‘at risk of collapsing’ in PNG, leaked government report reveals
There are holes in Papua New Guinea’s COVID-19 quarantine systems, and “critical functions” at its pandemic control centre are “at risk of collapsing” because some staff haven’t been paid, leaked documents reveal.
An internal ministerial briefing written last week, and obtained by the ABC, shows about 40 temporary staff performing “critical functions” at PNG’s National Control Centre for COVID-19 have not been paid since starting work five months ago.
“Some staff are threatening to stop work until they are paid, and some staff have already ceased working until they are paid,” it said.
“Critical functions are at risk of collapsing if the staff are not paid immediately.”
The country’s Health Minister, Jelta Wong, has blamed bureaucratic issues between the National Department of Health and the new National Control Centre for the workers not being paid.
“We’re working through that now and the secretary has been tasked to ensure that the people working in the frontline get paid and he’s assured me that it will happen,” he told the ABC.
The briefing document also raises concerns about the quarantine system, including that unnamed government ministers are trying to exempt some passengers from quarantine, which they don’t have the authority to do.
It says international passengers arriving at Jackson’s Airport in Port Moresby are “frequently showing letters issued by government ministers claiming to authorise the passengers to be exempted from quarantine”.
“This is causing disputes at the airport as only the controller has the power to issue exemptions,” it said.
But Mr Wong believed that once the current quarantine system was explained to Ministers, they were doing the right thing.
“It’s a process that takes about two weeks and it sort of pushes some Ministers to say, ‘oh, we need this done quickly and they need to be in the country’,” he said.
“But once we explain the effects of if these guys come in and there’s community transmission, they say ‘oh, ok, we’ll follow your protocols’.”
In one case, a man was able to escape quarantine and drink in a bar
In March last year, PNG closed its borders to incoming passengers. It then introduced a system to allow citizens and some foreigners in: They must have approval from the Pandemic Controller and a negative COVID-19 test, and are required to complete two weeks of quarantine.
But staff managing quarantine at the airport don’t have police or security support to “enforce passengers to comply, resulting in some passengers walking out of the airport without going into the quarantine system or location tracking app”, according to the briefing document.
It warned “point of entry” staff at the airport were fatigued as they were required “to work extremely long hours daily” to keep up with flight arrival times and were “putting themselves at risk” travelling to and from the airport at dark as they had “insufficient access” to vehicles.
But Mr Wong said he was “worried” about the quarantine system and that strengthening it, including “tightening up on our security”, was a focus.
“The fines are heavy. We had a case where a guy walked out of quarantine and walked into a bar and had a drink,” he said.
“He was brought back to quarantine and he had to pay a fine, and he also faced the option of deportation.”
The ABC has put questions to the National Control Centre about the concerns raised in its ministerial briefing but hasn’t received a response.
In a recent media statement, PNG’s pandemic controller David Manning highlighted the need to strengthen the country’s quarantine system, especially given how new variants of COVID-19 are appearing in other countries.
“Quarantine is one of the most important measures being employed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country and must be strictly observed,” he said in a statement.
“We are doing well but we need to improve because right now the quality is not there. There are other reasons why this is so, but the biggest of this due to logistics and financial resources.”
The island has fared better than others
Papua New Guinea has so far recorded 1,111 COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths. More than 60 per cent of recorded cases also show no symptoms.
Genomic testing on the virus strain in PNG is currently underway, but it’s believed the strain is one of the earlier, less severe variants.
But Anna Maalsen from the World Health Organisation and other health officials are warning PNG must stay vigilant.
“We do know health-seeking behaviour in general is often low [in PNG] … so coming to a health facility when you are sick is low in general,” she said.
“And PNG has a very young population, so the severe cases we see in other countries are usually linked to older adults.”
The United Nations estimates that 76 per cent of people in PNG are under 35 years old and 40 per cent are under the age of 15.
However, PNG has only conducted around 50,000 tests since the pandemic started.
The ministerial briefing said several provincial health authorities are “continually failing” to send reports on COVID-19 testing numbers, with nine provinces listed as supplying zero test reports.
It means they aren’t testing or haven’t submitted the data to the National Control Centre.
Mr Wong said increasing testing is a priority and he is speaking with Australia and other partners about improving testing facilities in the country to increase rates and allow faster turnaround of results.
The Health Minister said more education was needed as he was concerned that widespread misinformation about COVID-19, including that Papua New Guineans had immunity or that the pandemic is a hoax, is impacting testing rates.
PNG’s pandemic controller has coronavirus
Given the low testing rate, the coronavirus case figure in PNG is believed to be much higher.
It’s a source of concern for some observers, particularly against a backdrop of rising cases in Port Moresby and on the border with Indonesia.
More than 130 new cases have been reported since Thursday.
Mr Manning and two members of his family were among the recent cases after testing positive at the weekend. He has urged anyone with symptoms to get tested.
The ABC has been told that two Ministers and other Members of Parliament have also tested positive to COVID-19.
“My colleagues were very responsible,” Mr Wong said when asked about it.
“They got tested, three or four of them got COVID, and they’ve been in isolation, they’re still in isolation.
“But it hasn’t stopped them from working.”
The ABC has put questions to the Prime Minister’s Media Department about possible infections among MPs and impacts on Government work but is yet to receive a response.
Some government events planned for the end of this month have been postponed due to “medical and health reasons”, while the police headquarters and the Treasury building have been temporarily closed for cleaning after cases were detected there.
‘Critical’ staff shortage at hospital hit by COVID-19
Earlier this month, there was an outbreak at Sandaun Provincial Hospital in Vanimo, which sits on the border with Indonesia.
According to an internal situational brief obtained by the ABC, 13 of the hospital’s 37 staff have tested positive.
“There is a critical shortage of doctors, nurses and other technical staff to sustain the hospital’s routine and emergency medical services,” the report said.
It also advised that border crossings between PNG and Indonesia be suspended until the outbreak is under control as they “lack the staff strength and quarantine holding facilities”. The facility is now being used to isolate the positive staff.
In Port Moresby, a temporary COVID-19 field hospital set up at a local sporting facility in the middle of last year was closed when case numbers dropped.
It is now being reopened, with the controller saying it is “urgently needed due to an upsurge in cases” because the isolation wards at Port Moresby Hospital and the nearby Gerehu Hospital are both full.
So far, Matt Cannon from St John Ambulance PNG said the service hasn’t seen a significant increase in respiratory cases compared to previous years, but he is worried that could change.
“In the last few days there has appeared to be a spike in the number of cases and the number of cases and the number of cases within [the National Capital District],” he said, adding health authorities were undertaking contact tracing.
He said what was happening in PNG appeared to be similar to countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia, where they also had sporadic cases throughout 2020.
“But in December they had very large sparks,” he said.
PNG could start a voluntary vaccination program as early as April, depending on government approvals, with WHO and Australia lined up to supply vaccines, and China also offering to help.
“The concern in between now and when the vaccine arrives and when we can roll it out, if we are going to see a spike in cases, how are we going to respond to that?” Mr Cannon said.