Three weeks after the first Covid-19 infection was reported at the Mombasa port, new infections have rapidly swept through the vital installation, striking fear in the 7,000-strong workforce.
The sense of foreboding is shared across Mombasa County, which by Wednesday’s count, had recorded 67 infections.
Stung by the relentless march of the virus, mass diagnostic testing coordinated by the port, county and national governments, was launched on Sunday to determine the scope and extent of viral spread.
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Three testing stations have been established at the office of the Dock Workers Union at Gate 5, Operations Conference Room and Container Terminal Operations.
In the first phase, authorities seek to test 1,000 people at a rate of 60 per day. Within days of the testing launch, 23 workers have tested positive for the virus.
The outcome of the tests is disturbing to epidemiologists and other medical officials because of how port operations are intertwined with other sectors in Mombasa.
The infection figure is set to rise as testing is enhanced. County health workers now believe the 23 infected port workers are a major source of transmission in Mombasa.
It was also not clear whether the county health officials had traced all the people the 23 had come into contact with. “The task of tracing their contacts is momentous,” said one official of the committee established at the port to battle the virus.
“By yesterday, 23 infections had been recorded at the port,” said Hazel Koitaba, the Mombasa Health executive, referring to Wednesday’s national count that showed the coastal county had recorded 67 infections.
Ms Koitaba further revealed that “the first case” was reported at the port on March 30, and many more have been recorded.
“Most of the transmissions at the port are happening at work among people who work closely,” he said.
She indicated yesterday: “Since Sunday we have recorded 14 positive cases at the port and we expect this figure to rise as we ramp up mass testing capabilities. As long as we step up mass testing, we expect to pick more numbers.”
According to Koitaba, some of the positive cases were picked from quarantine centres established specifically for port employees.
There are 65 employees in these centres. Some placed there in early March have since been freed after testing negative.
Meanwhile, an analysis of the statistics from the port shows 66 per cent of the positive cases are aged between 30 and 59, and equally spread on sex lines.
The executive was reluctant to discuss the reasons for the rapid spread of the virus at the port despite mounting criticism that authorities there were slow in putting in measures to prevent infections and responding when infections began to rise.
There is consensus among stakeholders that the port’s first infections originated from foreign sailors who came into contact with port employees. But it is also evident that despite mitigation measures put in place after the fact, authorities were overwhelmed by the huge number of employees and the inability to shut down key operations.
Port officials stringently deny reports that they were lax or that foreign infected foreign sailors died within the port or interacted with port workers, denials that cannot be independently confirmed.
William Ruto, the general manager and harbour master in charge of the movement of ships at the port maintains that no crew of any visiting vessel calling at the Port of the Mombasa has tested positive for the virus.
Captain Ruto said all vessels arriving at the Port must declare the health status of the crew including providing health records for the vessels’ ten port calls.