The Ministry of Health wants to be able to carry out a maximum of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day in January. That is a tripling of the current capacity. This means that considerable scaling up will be required, while the test labs are already almost unable to cope with the demand.
In order to meet the demand in regions with a lot of infections in the short term, the ministry wants labs in regions with fewer infections to hand over test materials. “In order to distribute the burden, several labs can be designated to relinquish part of the stock,” writes the ministry. In the meantime, the ministry is trying to make agreements with new laboratories.
The redistribution of material automatically means that fewer tests can be carried out in some regions, let the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport know. The test street at Schiphol is not growing any further now. Also the opening hours remain the same, despite the fact that a majority of the room asked for it yesterday.
100,000 tests in January
But a lot of labs have insufficient test material at the moment, it turned out today. At this moment there are 96 locations where people can have a test done. The cotton swabs that are taken there are processed in 64 different laboratories. The labs that perform the tests each have their own problems.
So the Canisius Wilhelmina Hospital in Nijmegen was only connected to the national IT infrastructure yesterday. A lab that works for hospitals in West-Brabant and Zeeland has to intent on stock because of a shortage of material. Several labs report this: that they don’t receive enough materials to meet the increasing demand. A hospital in Breda works with an old system that can perform a limited number of tests.
“The labs always sail sharply to the wind and do not work with overcapacity. The stocks are not large and they often use the same suppliers,” explains doctor-microbiologist Marc Bonten. And according to him, the cause is simple: “Dutch economy. That doesn’t just apply to the laboratories, but to the entire system. We are used to being economical with tests. In times of a pandemic you get that around your ears.”
This, according to the microbiologist, is also the reason why it was difficult to scale up at the beginning of the crisis. “The world can’t be made, we notice now,” says Bonten. “We can’t decide for ourselves how much test capacity we want. There is a worldwide shortage of material in this area. We are running into the limits of what we can do now, as long as there is no more material available.”
According to Bonten, it doesn’t have to be a disaster if the test capacity lags behind. “There’s a huge cry for more tests, but above all we shouldn’t do pointless tests. Make choices. We have to make choices,” he says. “Especially when there’s a scarcity of materials, you have to have an idea.”
And once again, the discussion flares up as to who may – or should – be tested first. Yesterday, a majority of the Lower House insisted that the number of tests at Schiphol should be increased. Today, teachers are sounding the alarm because they want priority when it comes to testing. Because they have to wait a long time for the test results, schools do not manage to find enough substitutes.
Bonten advocates that it becomes clearer who is allowed to be tested. “Someone has to say: this will be the order,” says Bonten. “We have to choose who gets priority and how we’re going to test.”
“Two months ago I had the idea that it was going to work,” says Bonten about the ambition to scale up to 30,000 tests. “I didn’t think we’d have to deal with shortages so quickly and so badly. But that’s the reality now, and so we have to make choices.”