Struggling testing centres closing without notice, seven-day delays on results and rapid antigen tests handed out as a stopgap – businesses and individuals are paying the price for an overwhelmed testing regime, Jean Bell explains.
Opinion: Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I would have brushed off waking up with a sore throat and a sniffle as a mere nuisance and got on with my day.
But, as we’re living through the Omicron outbreak, these mild symptoms were a cause for concern as the number of cases continued to climb.
That morning I headed out to get a test, driving to the Balmoral testing station in Auckland Central just after it opened. I foolishly thought I would have skipped the morning queues, but the place was jam-packed and a queue of cars snaked down side streets before looping back on to Dominion Rd.
Instead of waiting in line, I booked a test at my doctor’s clinic for that afternoon. I felt for the frazzled nurse who took my swab, and I dutifully followed her instructions to stay at home until I got a result.
After four days, I finally got the text I had been waiting to receive: “Kia ora Jean, your Covid test was negative.”
This wait time was apparently to be expected.
The Northern Regional Health Coordination Centre said an increasing number of tests were taking up to five days to return, but some people have waited more than a week. One parent tells of waiting more than seven days for their nine-year-old child’s swab test result, before giving up and queuing up again to get them a rapid antigen test yesterday.
For businesses, there are fears about the ability to continue operating with large numbers of staff isolating at home, awaiting results. For public health, there are worries that people will simply lose patience and stop complying with self-isolation expectations.
Prominent epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, from Otago University, was concerned by the delay – regardless of whether a person had Covid or not.
If the person did not have Covid, they might be off work or have their life disrupted while they isolated unnecessarily and waited for a result that ultimately put them in the clear, he said.
If they were infected, contact tracing was not as effective because of the time delay and more people may have been exposed to an infected person during that time.
On Monday, nearly 6000 people showed up to get a test at one of the community testing centres across Auckland as the system showed all the signs of struggling under huge demand.
Auckland Central’s main testing site in Balmoral was shut down for two hours in the afternoon; hundreds or cars carrying close contacts and those with symptoms were told to come back later, or to go to the testing station outside the Destiny Church in Wiri, south Auckland. Waits there were approaching three hours; queues of cars obstructed access to neighbouring businesses.
The Northern Regional Health Coordination Centre said there may be times when a testing station closed its queue with minimal notice or turned people away from the site for a period of time where the queues posed a risk to traffic safety or the number of cars queueing exceeded the time remaining to test everyone in line before the station was due to close.
Those who had recently joined the queue might also be asked to head to another testing site where queues were shorter.
A spokesperson said rapid antigen tests were now available for use at community testing sites across Auckland at the staff’s discretion. It was hoped this would ease demand on labs under the pump processing nasal swabs, but a PCR test still may be needed to confirm a positive rapid antigen test.
While rapid testing has been rolled out for select public use, some businesses have been calling for the eligibility pool to be widened further.
BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope is among those calling for rapid tests to be available to more than just critical workers, to ease pressure on lab staff testing tens of thousands of PCR results.
Critical workers already had access to rapid antigen tests, but competing public and private demands meant big businesses such as grocery retailer Foodstuffs (whose members own New World, Pak’nSave and Four Square supermarkets) have struggled to access the tests they need.
Foodstuffs was part of a corporate rapid testing trial in October 2021, but once the Minister of Health decided to roll out the fast testing through the public system, the food supplier wasn’t able to fill a private order of rapid tests.
Corporate affairs manager Emma Wooster said “good access” to the rapid tests was important, to support the Government’s strategy allowing critical workers to return to work after testing clear.
“While we’re supportive, our stores have had some challenges accessing the Government-provided rapid antigen tests for close contacts in some locations, and we are talking to them about how we can solve this together.”
Wooster said rapid testing had proved a valuable surveillance tool, reducing the risk of transmission at supermarket and distribution sites. At this point, the company had enough rapid antigen tests to continue its surveillance testing, prevalent throughout Foodstuffs sites.
“Taking a regular test also gives our people extra reassurance we’re doing all we can to keep them safe at work,” she said. ”Along with all the protocols designed to keep our people safe, like masking, vaccination, hygiene and distancing, regular rapid antigen testing gives us confidence our business will be able to continue to operate as Omicron spreads.”