COVID-19 patients are dying in the “no man’s land” between antigen and RT-PCR tests

A health worker takes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 test at a hospital in Delhi, on 6 July 2020. Manish Swarup/AP Photo
28 August, 2020

On 9 August, Menekanta Gupta and eight members of his family went to 30 private hospitals in Andhra Pradesh’s Vishakhapatnam district to find a bed for his 54-year-old father, N Venkata Rao. Rao had taken a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 that said he was negative but he was breathless, fatigued and his health rapidly deteriorated. All 30 hospitals refused to admit him citing shortages of beds and ventilators for non-COVID patients. “We were prepared to do anything—pay all the hospitals whatever they need—but they refused and told us to admit my father elsewhere, where there were beds to treat non-COVID patients and especially where they have ventilators for non-COVID patients,” Menekanta said.

Desperate, he turned to authorities at the Maharaja District Hospital in Vizianagaram, a town 15 kilometers away from his village of Padmanabhan, in Visakhapatnam district. The hospital, which is now a dedicated COVID-19 care facility, gave Rao another rapid antigen test and the result came back as negative, again. This hospital referred him to the King George Hospital in Vishakhapatnam city.

Rao died on the evening of 11 August at the King George Hospital, the night after he got a bed. His family had spent two days trying to get him into hospital. At the time of his death, his blood-sugar level had spiked to six times the normal range. His oxygen-saturation level had fallen to 40 percent, while the minimum saturation level for a healthy adult is 90 percent. The hospital listed his primary cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest” and secondary causes as “pneumonia, diabetic ketoacidosis and type 1 respiratory failure.” Diabetic ketoacidos is a serious complication in patients who suffer from type 1 diabetes.

His family invited hundreds of relatives to his funeral rites since his death was not attributed to COVID-19. Five days after his death, local health officials told Menekanta that his father had posthumously tested positive for COVID-19 in a Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction, or RT-PCR test. “He tested negative twice with the antigen test and after we lost him they told us he had COVID-19,” Menekanta said, while in home quarantine with his family at their village. “He had the disease all along and yet we shuttled him from hospital to hospital where they denied him treatment.”