Laboratory scientists warn diagnostic testing services would be overwhelmed if people flooded PCR testing sites, but the health ministry insists it is working on a plan to manage demand.
Australian public anger has grown over the federal government’s handling of the outbreak, with record numbers of cases, long lines at testing centers and a shortage of rapid home tests.
Institute of Medical Laboratory Science president Terry Taylor said New Zealand laboratories would struggle to cope with rates of uncontrolled PCR tests similar to those in New South Wales.
â€œTheir labs performed over 100,000 PCR tests per day, which without a doubt would inundate our own labs and possibly overtake them,â€ he said.
New Zealand’s PCR testing capacity is being expanded to handle around 60,000 swabs per day as of February, but this depends on the combination of samples for testing, which only works when most of the results are negative.
Taylor said the government should design a national Omicron outbreak plan prioritizing PCR testing for symptomatic people.
“I still can’t believe how someone can sit in a car for five or six hours on a hot day in Sydney and say they need a PCR test, it really doesn’t matter much. makes sense, â€he said.
“You don’t have to sit in the queue and block it out for people who really need the system.”
Some Australian laboratories have been forced to temporarily close to cope with the backlog of cases.
New Zealand Microbiology Network chairperson Susan Morpeth said an outbreak of the highly transmissible variant would likely lead to changes in public health advice.
â€œIf an Omicron outbreak soon begins in New Zealand, it is likely that we would be overwhelmed with the demand for testing,â€ she said.
“The government should ask people to only get a PCR swab if they are symptomatic.”
The outbreak in Australia has resulted in a chronic shortage of rapid antigen test kits, with reports of empty shelves, storage and inflated prices.
Dr Morpeth said RATs could be used as a diagnostic test if laboratory PCR tests are outdated, but there should be clear guidelines on when to use them.
â€œRapid antigen testing may well be insufficient if we have a huge epidemic in New Zealand,â€ she said.
“I would like to see clear communication with people on when to order a PCR test, when to use a rapid antigen test, and what to do with the results.”
The Department of Health said it had not done any modeling of Omicron infection numbers, but was working on a testing framework in which RATs were the predominant method of detecting coronavirus infections.
“Using PCR as the predominant diagnostic tool will not be feasible due to the pressure it will place on laboratories and the turnaround times for Covid-19 PCR tests,” the ministry said in a statement. .
â€œThe ministry continues to examine the continued role of RATs as part of its testing strategy in response to emerging variants of Covid-19, such as Omicron, and to alleviate lab demands for PCR testing. “
Nearly three million rapid antigen tests are in stock and 20 million on order or on order, the ministry said.
He said he was “working at a steady pace to move the use of RATs from surveillance to diagnosis,” but did not indicate when the tests will be available to the general public in pharmacies and supermarkets.
Public Health Director Caroline McElnay said PCR testing is still used here, however, health officials are considering getting faster antigen testing in New Zealand.
The department had heeded the advice of the Australian authorities and was trying to place an order early.
â€œOnce you start using them you can actually use up your supply really quickly and I think that’s what Australia ended up in – that they were using their rapid antigen tests at a rate higher than they might have expectedâ€¦ I ‘I realize that there is a global problem with access to rapid antigenic testing.
Dr McElnay said Morning report that the priority remained to slow the arrival of Omicron by focusing on the collection of positive cases at the border.
She said RATs would only be part of a strategy to deal with any widespread community outbreak of Omicron.
“We’re looking at what’s happened overseas and certainly when you have a variant like Omicron that’s prevalent in the community with high rates of disease, those are situations where rapid antigen testing is very helpful.”
Dr McElnay said there was some concern about a spread of Omicron cases crushing the laboratory testing capacity of PCR tests.
She believes it will take at least a fortnight for Omicron to mainstream and that would allow time to move away from PCR tests which have provided the most reliable results in rapid antigen tests.
Pharmacy-supervised rapid antigen tests are free for unvaccinated domestic travelers who meet certain criteria and are also used by Auckland hospitals and some large companies.
Pharmacist Clair Connor said there has been a constant flow of people requesting rapid antigen testing at her Auckland pharmacy.
“On average there are between 10 and 20 people a day just asking about rapid antigen tests, wanting to know if they can buy it. They are shocked to find out they can’t,” a- she declared.
Connor said some customers have asked if they can ship boxes of RATs to relatives in Australia.
National Covid-19 Response Party spokesman Chris Bishop said New Zealand had a lot to learn from the Omicron outbreak in Australia.
“I’ve heard stories of people literally going to 10 or 15 pharmacies before they can find a rapid test. We don’t want that to happen in New Zealand. It means we have to plan ahead,” he said. he declared.
“We’re going to have to use rapid antigen testing on a much larger scale than we currently are.”
Bishop said New Zealand should rely on a mix of PCR tests, saliva and rapid antigens, which should be widely available and free or heavily subsidized for some people.
University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely said there was a slim chance New Zealand could exclude Omicron at the border, otherwise the country could “embrace” the variant and handle it properly.
â€œThere are great lessons here for New Zealand and you have four to six weeks to put them in place,â€ he said.
“Get loads of rapid antigen tests before you get Omicron and change your surveillance systems, or at least prepare them to rotate to be less reliant on PCR as Omicron numbers increase.”
He recommended the widespread use of rapid antigen tests, giving booster shots to two-thirds of the population over 60 over the next six weeks, mandatory mask wear and density limits.