As the health authorities continue to emphasise the importance of increasing the amount of testing for coronavirus, some issues remain unclear and many seem to have more questions than answers. 

In an attempt to address people’s concerns, Times of Malta spoke to Mater Dei Hospital pathology department head Chris Barbara - the man responsible for the testing - to better understand what the testing procedures entail.

Who gets tested? 

This seems to be the question on everyone’s mind, especially with the health authorities constantly stressing on the importance of testing as many people. 

But not just anyone can get tests. 

According to  Barbara, while until a few weeks ago it was only those who had been abroad who were being tested, as local transmission was confirmed last week, others who did not travel are also being tested. 

To be tested, however, patients must be showing at least one of these symptoms:

Persistent cough
Malaise (tiredness)
Shortness of breath
Fever
Loss of smell/taste

If everyone was to be tested, Barbara said, there was a risk of missing out those patients who were actually positive.

I have those symptoms, but when I called the helpline they said they would call me back. Why was I ignored? 

This does not mean anything, Barbara explained. Those manning the helpline were mainly filtering calls and, therefore, if a person has symptoms and the operators think that a COVID-19 test is needed, they would pass on the call to public health officials for further investigation. 

It was then that the person with symptoms would be given guidance on what to do next.

What if I don’t have symptoms but was in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19? 

Tests are only carried out on those who have symptoms, Barbara insisted, since that is when the result is most accurate. Anyone who has been in contact with a person who tested positive must observe mandatory quarantine rules and the minute they feel symptoms, they should get in touch with the health authorities, he said. 

What's taking so long?

The health authorities are currently in the process of setting up a further two testing centres, in addition to the one at the Ħal Farrug industrial estate, to speed up the process. 

According to Barbara, there are now four runs a day, each with multiple tests, being carried out at the hospital's labs and results are available within 24 hours. 

“One must also keep in mind that those testing positive are a priority, so once results are out, the health authorities focus on that. Some people testing negative might have to wait a bit longer for the authorities to inform them of their results,” he said. 

What if I have the symptoms but my test came out negative? 

The tests being carried out at Mater Dei are the most sensitive ones available, Barbara assures. This, he said, was why test results were taking so long as were to be confirmed. 

Acknowledging the availability of tests that gave results even within 10 minutes, Barbara said these were not as accurate as the ones being used in Malta. 

If a patient with symptoms tests negative, he said, it is almost certain that they do not have coronavirus and they have another virus with similar symptoms. 

One should still be cautious and follow the authorities’ advice, he said. 

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