Sri Lanka’s daily COVID-19 cases may be three times what tests suggest: Dr Fernandopulle

With undetected daily COVID-19 cases possibly three times what PCR testing suggests, Sri Lanka must be closed down for at least two weeks to contain the rapid spread of the virus, State Minister for COVID-19 Control Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle said.

“We recommend that people be confined to their homes for at least two weeks to contain the spread. The incubation period for this virus is two to 14 days. If people stay at home for those 14 days, the virus won’t enter the home and infected people won’t be able take it outside,” Fernandopulle told reporters on May 20.

“As a public health specialist this is what I recommend in order to break the cycle,” she added.

The state minister could not, however, guarantee that the government will definitely impose a lockdown.

“I can’t give a decision on that. It is what I recommend,” she said.

A spokesperson for the National Operations Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19 (NOCPOC) told EconoyNext that no decision has been made yet to go for a total lockdown.

The previously announced island-wide movement restrictions will still be in place from 11pm May 21 to 4am May 25 and again from 11pm that day to 4am May 28, the spokesperson said.

The 17-hour window on May 25 during what will otherwise be a curfew-style unofficial lockdown is for people to gather supplies.

However, Dr Fernandopulle has stressed the need for what will essentially amount to a complete closure of the country.

“The epidemic has spread widely. There is a pressing need for oxygen and equipment. Just yesterday 3,500 cases were detected, and that’s just people who were tested. There may be more cases – perhaps as three times as many – in the community,” she said.

“There can be further spread to the community from those cases,” she added.

Despite repeated requests to stay at home and only move on select days based on their national identity card (NIC) number, people can still be seen out and about, said the state minister.

“People really must stay at home. I urge the public to not step out of the house unless it’s absolutely essential,” she said, warning that asymptomatic carriers could spread the virus everywhere.

Fernandopulle recommended that people go to nearby, ventilated grocery stores rather than enclosed spaces to buy what they need and hurry home.

“The new strain is spreading fast and deaths have increased. People must act responsibly,” she said.

The state minister also defended a health ministry circular dated May 19 that has threatened disciplinary action against doctors and other officials in the health sector from speaking freely to the media.

“We can’t go to the media and say whatever we want. It is a task for the experts. Otherwise there could be inaccuracies and misleading information,” she said.

Asked about politicians who tend to mislead the public, Fernandopulle said: “People are smart now. When it comes to matters of public health, they know whom to listen to.”

The doctor-turned politician denied allegations that the government is attempting to hide the reality of the situation.

“I don’t think that is the case. If we try to hide this epidemic, we’ll all perish,” she said.

Fernandopulle also defended moves to treat asymptomatic COVID-19 cases at home.

“There are many positive cases. They can’t all be admitted to hospitals at once. There should be a triage and priority be given to patients over 60 and patients with underlying complications, etc, over asymptomatic or younger patients.

“They can be at home but monitored daily by doctors. They won’t be left to their own devices. That is not what is meant by home quarantine,” she said.

Asked if the public can be trusted to not further spread the virus during home quarantine, Fernandopulle said that people must remember that the country is dealing with an epidemic.

“They have a responsibility. What do you do when the system is overrun? When it’s overcapacity, if both symptomatic and asymptomatic people are admitted, the doctors will be put in a difficult position.

“Patients with complications cannot be prioritised then. People need to know that this is an epidemic. There’s no hiding it. It’s people who get infected, not animals. People must also be mindful to not get infected and not infect others,” she said. 

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