A prospective patient undergoes a COVID-19 test in preparation for undertaking a medical procedure at a private hospital recently.

The Ministry of Health’s threat of possible criminal charges forced one private medical laboratory to halt COVID-19 testing on Friday, sparking concern that elective surgeries at private hospitals could be postponed.

The director of the laboratory, who asked that both her name and institution be withheld, said she sent a notice yesterday to the private hospitals and doctors who use her services, advising that her facility would cease offering COVID testing pending ministry approval.

She said doctors have been procuring her services to test patients for COVID-19 as part of pre-operation screening. However, those private facilities have now begun postponing elective surgeries because patients cannot be tested through her laboratory.

Her company halted its COVID-19 service after Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh revealed on Thursday that the ministry’s legal department was looking into an advertisement from a private laboratory for COVID-19 testing. He said the ministry is compiling a file on the matter to send to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Section 7.2 of the Public Health Ordinance regulations says a person or private medical laboratory that fails to report COVID-19 test results to the Chief Medical Officer or regional health authority commits an offence and is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for six months.

The laboratory owner said Deyalsingh’s comments on Thursday were “confusing,” since they appeared to suggest private laboratories could be penalised for conducting COVID-19 testing, not just failure to report a positive result.

Deyalsingh has repeatedly dissuaded the public from using lab services that do not have ministry approval for this kind of test. Thursday’s press briefing was the first time he revealed any action is being taken against laboratories whose COVID-19 testing is not approved.

The laboratory owner declined to confirm whether she is seeking legal advice on the minister’s statement. She said no one in public health had contacted her to express concern.

None of the four laboratories that applied for ministry clearance to conduct COVID-19 testing have been given the green light yet.

The lab owner said her company applied for ministry approval of its COVID-19 testing in April. She said ministry officials inspected her facility on May 1 but there has been no update on her application since then.

The CEO of a private health facility in west Trinidad also yesterday expressed dismay over the Government’s stance on private laboratory testing.

“Private labs have been functioning in the country for 20, 30 years and they are far superior than the lab that the Government has in place at present,” the CEO said, asking not to be identified.

“Can the Ministry of Health give you certification? Who is qualified to certify a lab? That’s number one. Number two is CARPHA is not able to certify anybody, so I’m not sure what they are talking about with ‘certification’.”

COVID-19 screening is now a mandatory part of pre-surgery testing for his patients.

“If it comes back positive for COVID-19, we will not be doing surgery on you,” he said.

“The person on the (operating) table, we have to know every medical factor behind it for our nurses and doctors to be comfortable operating on somebody. I can’t go find a radiologist tomorrow or an orthopaedic surgeon because they get sick. It would shut me down.”

He said anyone contemplating elective surgery in the private health sector should prepare to spend an extra $600 to $2,000 for this screening. His company is interested in both antigen testing, which diagnoses existing infections and antibody testing that could indicate whether someone has recovered from COVID-19. Doctors and nurses at his facility are tested for COVID-19 every two weeks.

The T&T Guardian contacted both Deyalsingh and the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to clarify the regulations on private laboratory testing. The CMO did not answer or return our phone call and read our WhatsApp message but did not respond. Deyalsingh instructed us to reach out to his Corporate Communications unit, which simply re-sent us the Public Health Ordinance regulations and directed us to section 7.

Reporter: Faine Richards