Endeavors of National Coronavirus Taskforce and Realities in Bulgaria

България прави много малък брой тестове - само 88 на милион.
Atanas Tchobanov

“Testing is done according to WHO rules. The aim of the Regional Health Inspectorates (RHI) is to test all people with possible contact with infected persons, especially frontline doctors,” Dr. Mutafchiyski, the Head of the National Coronavirus Taskforce, assured at a press conference at the Council of Ministers on April 4, 2020. Bivol examined in detail two cases in which reality is seriously at odds with the stated intention.

Three-in-one counting of positive coronavirus cases

The official data for infected people in Bulgaria are based solely on PCR tests. The infected were 503 at the time of the final editing of this article.

Bivol talked to an individual who has definitely tested positive for coronavirus. He shared his troubles with the testing procedure, the RHI and quarantine measures on condition of anonymity. Bivol is in possession of his identity. We will call him A.

A felt the first symptoms late last week and called his doctor who prescribed an antibiotic. Over the weekend, he lost the sense of taste and smell, a specific symptom of a COVID-19 infection. He also maintained high fever and called his personal physician again on March 30, 2020, who sent him to have an X-ray. The imaging (in the headline picture) established bilateral interstitial pneumonia.

Worried, A called the 112 emergency hotline, where he was asked if he had a car and was advised to get tested for coronavirus at a private lab, which he did on March 31. The result for COVID-19 was positive. The Ministry of the Interior approached A and informed him that he had to comply with the 28-day quarantine. Then the staff of RHI-Sofia visited him.

So far, it look like the rules have been followed. A’s wife and child also developed symptoms, but when asked if they should be tested as well, the RHI told them: “Don’t waste your money.”

Frugality, however, has specific implications not only for coronavirus statistics but for patients’ quarantine. It had been 28 days for A, and only 14 days for his wife and child.

“I repeatedly asked the RHI whether I should also comply with the 28-day quarantine and whether it would be dangerous if I left home after 14 days,” said A’s wife.

The issue is very relevant, as COVID-19 patients remain infected beyond day 14, which makes their quarantine twice as long. The worldwide practice is to consider a person healed after two consecutive negative PCR tests. The members of A’s family will not be tested at all since they are not listed anywhere as sick.

In the end, government statistics have counted only one infected person from A’s family, while they are actually three.

Frontline staff is not tested

The second case, which Bivol was able to confirm, was announced by the Chairman of the Civic Association BOETS (Fighter) Georgi Georgiev. According to him, there were several people with symptoms among the medical staff at the hospital in the Danube city of Vidin, where the first coronavirus patient in the region had been admitted, including the ward’s head physician Dr. Nikolov, who had been also hospitalized.

Despite the globally proven current practice, the hospital is not only not under quarantine, but the samples of the medical staff sent from the hospital to the RHI – Vidin have not been tested at all. The local head of the RHI told the public radio, the Bulgarian National Radio, BNR, that he had complied with the rules set by the National Coronavirus Taskforce to test only people with symptoms and not to test people who have been in contact with them at the National Reference Laboratory.

The head of the RHI even scolded the medics: “Why didn’t they at least wear masks and gloves? Emergency facilities have protective gear. This is very irresponsible on their part. And after all this, they want to be tested.”

This is quite different from the voiced aim to test all people with possible contact with infected persons, especially frontline personnel such as doctors (and nurses).

Lawmakers are tested free of charge

In the meantime, as A traveled between private laboratories with bilateral pneumonia and visible symptoms and health chiefs blamed the Vidin doctors, who dared to ask to be tested, healthy Bulgarian MPs without symptoms, gathered in front of the Military Medical Academy and the Sofiamed lab to be tested after one of their colleagues was found positive. Bulgarian lawmakers demonstrated lack of discipline as pictures show them gathered close to each other and without observing the required distance of 1.5 meters while standing in line to be tested for COVID-19 on April 1, 2020. After the testing, another two turned positive.

When approached by Bivol with questions about who had paid for their tests, the MPs said that they did not know. Yavor Bozhankov, an MP from the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, confirmed that he had not paid and did not know who had paid for his test. “It probably came from the budget of the National Assembly,” suggested Bozhankov and promised to search for an answer.

No test – no problem

The information about tests performed in Bulgaria is controversial. According to data from the National Coronavirus Taskforce, 1,276 tests had been performed since April 1, 2020, or nearly 9,000 tests in total, not counting about 3,000 tests done in private labs.

Over the past week, it also became clear that mass testing is not a priority for the National Coronavirus Taskforce and the government, and rapid tests will not be used, at least for now. This opposes the strategies of countries successful in the fight against coronavirus, where mass testing is accompanied by strict monitoring of infected people quarantine and mandatory testing of individuals who have been in contact with them.

In the Worldometers reference site, which provides data on infected, deceased and tested people worldwide, Bulgaria is present with a much smaller number of tests – only 88 per one million of the population. However, it is unclear where the data has come from. If over 1,200 tests people per one million had really been conducted already, Bulgaria should be in the same group as Lebanon, Armenia and Bosnia. The site, however, currently places the country in the group of Venezuela and Botswana.

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