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Living with the coronavirus

A surge in infection rates has not derailed Egypt’s gradual reopening

Ahmed Morsy , Tuesday 16 Jun 2020
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Drive-through PCR testing service is now available
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Egypt broke its daily record for coronavirus infections and fatalities twice this week. While it took the respiratory virus 50 days to reach 1,000 infections on 4 April, it took 24 hours to detect 1,691 cases on Monday, bringing the total number of infections to 46,289 and the total number of fatalities to 1,672.

Egypt has yet to reach its peak infection rate, says Hossam Hosni, head of the Ministry of Health Scientific Committee to Combat COVID-19. Hosni expects the number of coronavirus cases to increase to between 2,000−2,500 a day by the first week of July, after which “the number of cases will stabilise and start decreasing.”

Health Minister Hala Zayed has been more cautious. “We will only be able to recognise the peak stage after it passes,” she said. “Only when the rate of infections falls for two consecutive weeks we can say we are past the peak.”

Zayed made the statements while inspecting hospitals across Cairo earlier this month, when she also appealed to suspected coronavirus cases to head to the nearest of the 376 hospitals designated by the Ministry of Health to treat coronavirus.

“Anyone who has respiratory symptoms or a high fever should consider themselves infected and go to the nearest hospital immediately,” Zayed said. Acknowledging that “some families prefer to treat infected members at home,” she said the behaviour resulted in cases arriving at hospitals late.

Ministry of Health hospitals provide coronavirus tests and treatments free of charge, and many of them are full, leading to complaints by the public about a shortage of hospital beds.

Under Egypt’s newly-adopted treatment protocol mild and moderate Covid-19 patients are treated at home or at university hostels in an attempt to free up beds for critical cases in overwhelmed state-run isolation hospitals.

On 3 June, Zayed said 5,484 confirmed coronavirus patients were being treated at home, and 5,894 cases had been sent to university hostels.

Late last month the ministry made coronavirus drug kits, which include medications and preventive supplies, available for coronavirus patients being treated at home, and the people with whom they had come into contact. The treatment kit is available through 5,013 health units and medical centres, and 1,000 medical convoys, across all governorates.

The Health Ministry now uses clinical examinations and chest x-rays to identify suspected cases of coronavirus. Treatment starts immediately, until the result of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is available.

Central Department of Laboratories head Nancy Al-Gendi has reported that 6,000 PCR tests are conducted free every day. In a telephone interview with MBC Misr 2 last week, she said patients with coronavirus symptoms should head to the nearest hospital for a swab. The hospital then sends the swab to the central laboratories for PCR testing.

The Health Ministry has placed a ceiling on the cost of Covid-19 treatment at private hospitals. Charges range from LE 1,500 to LE 10,000 per day depending on the severity of the condition.

Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli inspected the newly built 200-bed Ain Shams field quarantine hospital on Monday, and toured its drive-through coronavirus testing site.

Egypt’s first drive-through lab will be followed by four others: it aims to make it easier for people to access PCR tests and will prevent crowding at medical facilities by allowing people to have samples taken while inside their vehicles, a cabinet statement said.

A test can be reserved via a mobile application, with the results sent directly to the mobile. According to a leaflet by the testing company Prime Speed Medical the drive-thru testing services became available last Tuesday. A PCR test costs LE2,000. The same test in a private laboratory can cost up to LE2,600.

On 5 June, Zayed reiterated a Health Ministry plea for patients who had recovered from coronavirus in the last 14 days to donate blood plasma to help treat critical cases of infection.

Plasma therapy trials, first introduced in Egypt on 30 April, have shown promising initial results, including a reduction in the need for ventilators, Zayed said.

On 10 June, she revealed 19 coronavirus cases had been treated using plasma in accordance with the protocol prepared by the Scientific Committee to Counter Covid-19 and the National Blood Transfusion Centre. Among the treated cases four recovered and were discharged from isolation hospitals, while another case is isolating at home after his condition improved. Of the 10 cases still being treated in hospital, seven are improving. Sadly, four of the patients died.

Despite the surge in coronavirus infections, on 11 June the cabinet issued a series of measures designed to gradually reopen the country. The night-time curfew, in place since March, has been shortened by one hour, and now runs from 8pm to 4am. Shops are now allowed to operate till 6pm instead of 5pm, and public transport runs until 8 pm.

Though public parks and beaches will remain closed, Thanawiya Amma exams will take place as scheduled.

The government is also contemplating reopening places of worship in July in governorates with low numbers of coronavirus infections, as long as preventive and precautionary measures are in place.

Cairo, Giza and Qalioubiya are the governorates with the highest rate of coronavirus infections, while Red Sea, Marsa Matrouh and South Sinai have the lowest.

Minister of Aviation Mohamed Manar has announced that starting from 1 July, Egypt will gradually resume regular international flights with countries that have reopened their airports. He added that foreign tourists will initially be restricted to visiting the South Sinai, Red Sea and Marsa Matrouh governorates. Visa fees will be waived for tourists arriving on direct flights to resort cities until the end of October.

On 11 June the cabinet decided sports clubs and youth centres will be allowed to accept members’ subscriptions from 15 to 30 June, provided precautionary measures, including enhanced sterilisation, are in place.

Meanwhile, Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi announced that clubs “will resume training on 20 June” to get ready for the domestic football league. Matches, suspended for four months, are due to resume on 25 July.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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