Nicaraguan Health Workers: Covid-19 Infections in Government Laboratories

“Conchita Palacios” Complex, part of the Health Ministry. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

Ministry of Health tests its workers for Covid-19, but doesn’t give them the results, “only isolates them.”

By Elmer Rivas (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – At least six laboratory workers from the “Conchita Palacios” National Health Complex in Managua, where the government of Daniel Ortega has centralized all Covid-19 testing. The technicians have been isolated after having received the test, sources closely linked to the central offices of the Ministry of Health (Minsa) confirmed to Confidencial.

The infected are part of the personnel who receive the test samples for the laboratory, the only one in the country allowed to process the Covid-19 tests. One of those presumed to have the virus works in the reception office of Minsa Secretary General Carlos Saenz and is responsible for registering the samples that enter the laboratory.

“They took her to a clinic to be checked, they didn’t give her the result of the test and they sent her home,” a source from the laboratory affirms.

This week, the Minsa authorities made out a schedule for conducting Coronavirus testing on all the personnel that work in the health complex laboratories, some 100 workers. However, internal sources from the central office asserted that they weren’t informing those involved of the results: “they merely isolate them.” “If they tell them that it’s positive, the authorities know that information is going to get leaked, and it will get out of their hands,” the source stated.

Installations of the “Conchita Palacios” Health Complex, where the government has centralized all Covid-19 testing in Nicaragua. Photo: Carlos Herrera

Sonia Castro serves as communications link to El Carmen

On Tuesday, May 5th, Sonia Castro, former Minister of Health and currently the presidential advisor on health matters, visited the Minsa central office to “await the results” of some of the tests realized among the workers. According to Minsa sources, Castro continues serving as the communications link to the presidential couple in their El Carmen residence, and she maintains power and influence in the Health Ministry.

Castro was sanctioned by the United States government on June 21, 2019, accused of having given orders for the public hospitals to deny medical attention to citizens who were wounded during the protests of the 2018 April Rebellion. On July 26 of that same year, she was removed from her post and named presidential advisor on health matters. She has also been sanctioned by the Canadian government, and this week the European Union sanctioned her as well.

In the “Conchita Palacios” center, the person responsible for conducting the Covid-19 tests is Cuban virologist Angel Balmaceda, head of the Health Ministry’s National Diagnostic and Referral Center. Balmaceda is a political loyalist. Working with him is his wife, Yara Saborio, a specialist in influenza, plus a “small group of three or four people” who process the Coronavirus tests on all the samples that arrive daily from the different hospitals.

Minsa health personnel unprotected

The negligence of the state in handling the Coronavirus pandemic ranges from refusing to recognize the emergency, to not offering the specialists at the clinical laboratory the tools needed to shield them from contagion. “Up until a week ago, the staff in the virology laboratory (charged with processing the Covid-19 tests) were going around without an protective gear, without masks, with nothing,” a source from the Complex affirms.

Starting with the infections in the Health Ministry laboratories this week, officials ordered that hand-washing areas be set up. They also ordered the use of masks that would be “reusable”, due to the lack of supplies.

Medical personnel outside the “Manuel Morales” Hospital in Managua on March 19, when the government ordered a national simulation of multiple threats. / Photo: Carlos Herrera

“We public employees feel alone, abandoned, with no protection, without any leadership to tell us what to do. They don’t have any consideration for us, much less respect. We don’t know what’s happening. We’re afraid we’ll go home and infect our families,” a source stated with exasperation.

Absolute silence and secrecy

Of the over one hundred state employees that work in the Minsa laboratories, no one has any certainty about what is really happening with the Coronavirus pandemic in Nicaragua. The information and the test application is centralized in the inner directive circles of the ministry, under the political orientation of the presidency.

For five days, up until May 6 when they stopped altogether, the Ministry of Health merely held a two-minute television appearance to announce new positive cases of Covid-19, giving no details on the origin of the contagion and the patient’s health status.

Vice president and government spokesperson Rosario Murillo stated to the official media that the Minsa telephone line that has been set up for consultations regarding the pandemic is receiving over 3,000 calls daily from the population. However, she did not say how many of those calls were to denounce suspected cases, nor how many tests the Health Ministry is realizing every day, nor if the 26,000 test kits donated by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration are now being used.

“The atmosphere in the laboratories is quite tense. The workers are fanatical supporters of the government; even if they’re not in agreement, they keep quiet, but they know that they’re lying,” affirms a source closed to the Minsa central offices.

System threatened with collapse

Minsa’s virology lab daily receives containers from all the hospitals of the capital with tests from patients suspected of having Covid-19. The government doesn’t offer any details regarding how many tests they conduct nor of how many of them are negative. However, the undercounted pandemic is now increasingly revealing its human cost. “These lies are unsustainable,” states a worker at the Minsa laboratories.

Medical sources and family members of patients have confirmed to Confidencial that the public hospitals of the country are at the limits of their capacity, with a week yet to go before what the experts and epidemiologists warn will be an exponential evolution of contagion in the country.

Covid-19 Observatorio Ciudadano [Citizen Observatory], a private group made up of citizens, doctors and independent experts, in their last report counted 781 suspected cases in the country, including the officially confirmed positive cases and the 16 cases of follow-up the government has reported.

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