NSW Health says COVID-19 testing for anyone is inevitableBlau Medical News
The move follows Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s edict that easing social distancing restrictions was contingent on widespread, rapid testing and “industrial capacity” contact tracing.
The number of daily confirmed cases in NSW has dropped to single digits, but testing clinics and pathology labs are ramping up their operations.
On Tuesday, Australia’s confirmed cases tally rose by 26 to 6645 from more than 434,000 tests.
NSW recorded six new cases, taking the total to 2969 from more than 171,000 tests as the government expands its testing to people with even the mildest symptoms.
Greg Granger, director of operations at St Vincent’s pathology service SydPath, regards Australia’s enviable coronavirus trajectory with cautious vigilance and had prepared his laboratories for multiple contingencies, including European level outbreaks.
“There is an inevitability with any virus, particularly a novel virus,” he said. “It can get away from us at any time.
“Everyone in Sydney will eventually be tested and re-tested and probably re-tested again.”
Community-based antibody testing would be crucial to determining what proportion of the population have cleared the infection and developed antibodies.
Dr Chant said accurate and widespread antibody testing was not yet available, but would be very useful, though she cautioned against conflating the presence of antibodies with immunity.
“Everything is always under consideration,” Dr Chant said. “I would wait for a test [to become available] and form our response.”
NSW Deputy Chief Health Officer Jeremy McAnulty confirmed NSW was planning to expand COVID screening “down the track” saying ”the aim is to suppress it as much as possible”. He was also considering how to introduce antibody testing.
But his immediate focus was finding active, infectious cases using polymerise chain reaction [PCR] testing – a highly sensitive procedure that detects the gene sequences of the virus from nasal swab samples.
On Tuesday Mr Morrison confirmed the ban on non-essential elective surgeries would be relaxed after the Anzac Day weekend, including IVF, eye surgery, breast reconstructive surgery, hip and knee replacements and other category two operations.
Widespread, rapid testing was impossible in the early days of the pandemic, when tests were rationed to preserve scarce stockpiles and the only two laboratories processing NSW samples took five to seven days to return results, Mr Granger said.
But laboratories are now reporting positive results within 24 hours. Same-day turnaround was crucial for effective contact tracing, Mr Granger said.
A single nasal swab will be tested for antigens for COVID-19 and 21 other respiratory infections, including several flu strains and other coronaviruses.
The testing instrument was 100 per cent accurate for specificity and 95 per cent for sensitivity once the variables of human error and calibration are factored in, Mr Granger said.
SydPath staff run PCR molecular testing 24 hours, seven days a week. On Monday the lab processed its 10,000th COVID-19 test with a positive rate of 2-3 per cent.
When the daily confirmed case numbers were climbing by the tens, then hundreds, Mr Granger recruited a second and third wave of scientists who could relieve his staff.
“We look after a primary hospital with thousands of people depending on us daily,” Mr Granger said.
“We don’t want to see what happened in Tasmania happen to us,” he said, referring to a COVID cluster in Burnie’s North West Regional Hospital that sent 5000 people into quarantine and closed the hospital.
The SydPath’s microbiologists recognised the potential threat in mid-January, Mr Granger said.
“I trusted their instincts which were telling them that we were heading for something potentially catastrophic,” he said.