A hotspot for coronavirus in New Zealand is now at the forefront of targeted “sentinel testing” to determine whether the deadly virus is spreading within the community

Voluntary, drive-through Covid-19 testing is now underway at a Queenstown supermarket because of the town’s status as a virus hotspot.

Primary care organisation WellSouth has set up the community testing facility Thursday morning at PAK’nSAVE, on Hawthorne Drive.

Motorists entering the car park are being invited to take a test by WellSouth workers wearing protective medical gear. Two lines of cars are queuing towards two large marquees, well away from the supermarket building, where clinicians in masks and gowns are carrying out the tests through car windows.

A clinician, with the name ‘Carolyn’ written in marker on her gown, said the tests were being conducted because Queenstown is a “hot spot” for Covid-19 in New Zealand and random testing will enable those tracking the spread to get a better idea of how present it is in the general population.

It is believed to be the first case of randomised community testing in New Zealand.

Those who do not opt to have the test can just drive into the carpark to shop instead. But there seems to be a decent uptake, with about 20 cars waiting in the queue.

Some 86 people are confirmed and probable cases in the Queenstown Lakes District, representing about 6 percent of cases in New Zealand, despite a population of about 42,000 relative to New Zealand’s 4.8 million (under 1 percent of the total).

Photo: Paul Taylor

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said 300 people from the community were being swabbed as part of “targeted sentinel testing” to help understand if there was any community transmission of the virus.

With a large number of cases in the area, all associated with specific events, Queenstown was among the areas flagged by epidemiology experts within the Ministry of Health’s technical advisory group where some wider testing would be useful.

“It just helps us build a picture of whether there is any community transmission,” Bloomfield said, praising the local public health team for its quick response to the advice which was only received on Wednesday.

WellSouth chief executive Andrew Swanson-Dobbs told Newsroom this afternoon the operation and support of the public had been “absolutely f***ing stunning”. He’d got the call from Southern District Health Board medical officer of health Dr Susan Jack at 2.30pm yesterday, asking WellSouth to swab 300 random asymptomatic people.

By 2.35pm he’d got approval from PAK’nSAVE and then by 5pm the staff and volunteers were organised.

“By 6am the next morning, there are tents, portaloos, cabins, heating, lighting, generators, and by 10am we had the first run through with the staff and the first person rocked up for a swab.”

By 1pm, they had swabbed 140 people. There were 30 doctors and nurses on site.

“The queues are stunning. Ten-deep on both lanes. We’ve had to do traffic management. I was quietly surprised and pleased.”

Swanson-Dobbs says the likely one-off test is to check “the prevalence in this region, which has been a centre of positive COVID cases”. He said more tests had been conducted in the district, per population, than anywhere else.

But he said the reasons for the high Queenstown numbers was a question better directed to Dr Jack.

The testing was not made public because the SDHB wanted a random selection.

Symptomatic cases are being tested at WellSouth’s Community Based Assessment Centre, at Queenstown’s Memorial Hall, either through referral from GPs of WellSouth’s new hotline 0800 VIRUS19.

Similar testing was likely to occur in several other areas identified by the epidemiology team, including South Auckland and Waikato.

Bloomfield said there had been an increase in testing more broadly, even though there were much lower levels of respiratory illness in the community as shown through primary care data and information collected by Healthline.

Paul Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Queenstown

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