| Radio New Zealand Pacific
AUCKLAND - The Covid-19 crisis in Papua New Guinea is deepening as the country's main hospitals are increasingly swamped by cases.
When the government earlier this year decided the country must learn to live with the virus, health authorities scaled back testing and reporting.
The result is a silent health disaster steadily unfolding around parts of the country including the heavily populated Highlands region.
Since PNG's first reported case in July, the Delta strain has been largely left to fester and spread.
Port Moresby is undergoing a third wave of the pandemic, and the strain on its health system is mirrored in several provinces.
Health authorities say deaths from the virus are being recorded every day at Goroka Hospital, prompting a two week lockdown in a bid to stem the surge.
Local environmentalist Anis Tairo said since the surge began about a month ago things had quickly come to a head in Goroka and Kainantu and has frightened his family.
"For the first couple of weeks, people were not taking anything seriously. They were just walking around in groups, not wearing masks.
“It's very typical. We have the social attitude of gathering together, moving around together, eating together.
"And because of that the provincial government or national government has had to start the lockdown so people can be isolated or stay home."
Former provincial governor Julie Soso said reports of a spate of deaths in the province coincided with the hospital becoming full.
"For the hospital itself, it's really stressed. Mi sori for our health workers there, because a lot of them are down.
“They're showing signs of Covid, mild and moderate Covid. So they are treating themselves and we are downstaffed."
It's a similar situation in Western Highlands Province, where another major hospital has had to cut back services to focus on the Covid surge.
Dr John Junior McKup – who is a Mt Hagen Hospital emergency physician and Covid-19 response clinical lead - said the hospital recently re-purposed two wards to boost capacity for Covid patients between ages 40 and 56, but even that was not enough.
"Like last week our biggest hit was about 90-plus patients turning positive in a day. Regularly the numbers have been like 50 or 60 positives in a day.
“We're sending home all the mild and moderate cases to self-isolate at home. We're keeping in the hospital only the severe cases."
Yesterday’s official figures showed there had been over 23,000 cases and 245 known deaths in PNG, but testing is so low as to make such statistics misleading
Clinicians warn the real figures are much higher, with individual provinces seeing far more cases than the National Control Centre records.
Dr McKup said in the three weeks to last Friday over 800 positive cases and 22 deaths were recorded in Western Highlands.
"We need lots more people to get vaccinated so they don't come and need the hospital beds," he said.
"We've seen an increase in the number of people coming in to get vaccinated after this wave.
“But still our numbers are quite low, even among healthcare workers.
“We're pushing people to get vaccinated so they don't need an admission."
PNG is offering its citizens Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines, with a third vaccine, the single-shot Johnson & Johnson, coming soon.
But health authorities say only about two percent of the population has been vaccinated.
Ms Soso said uncertainty and widespread misinformation remained huge obstacles.
"They can't believe yet in the vaccines, because of all these rumours and confusions that people are creating in Facebook and on the radio," she said.
"People are really discouraging one another to go and get the vaccine."
Meanwhile in the national capital, Harlyne Joku of Sunday Bulletin has said chief executive of Port Moresby General Hospital, Dr Paki Molumi, has told revealed that 70% of patients presenting with flu-like symptoms are testing positive for Covid.
“We have 92 Covid patients admitted and our 19-bed isolation ward is full. A medical ward was opened up to accommodate the numbers, Dr Molumi said.
“The current third wave of Covid is the worst since the pandemic outbreak.”
Dr Molumi said he has directed medical staff from other disciplines including surgery, paediatrics, dental, ophthalmology, psychiatry, physiotherapy, pathology and radiology to support the Covid response.