A “huge surge” in Covid testing across Sydney has crippled private pathology services and left Sydneysiders waiting almost four days for their results.
The delays are causing headaches for the essential workers living in three local government areas in south-western Sydney who must get tested every 72 hours, as authorities are unable to guarantee a result by the time they present for their next test.
Elsewhere, the delays could cause problems for medical procedures across the city, as some hospitals require a negative Covid test before entry for elective surgery.
Laverty Pathology, which runs drive-through Covid testing clinics, including one in Fairfield at the heart of Sydney’s outbreak, has acknowledged the “huge surge” in testing prompted by the New South Wales government’s requirement for regular tests had pushed out turnaround times to between 48 and 72 hours.
But Guardian Australia is aware of people who were tested at Laverty’s clinics in Rose Bay and Surry Hills, in Sydney’s east, more than 90 hours ago. On Tuesday morning they were still waiting for their results.
On Monday the NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, acknowledged the delays plaguing test results, saying private pathology providers had asked NSW Health to tell people to be patient and not tie up their phone lines.
On Tuesday Chant said the delays with “one of the private labs” that processes more than 10,000 tests a day continued to have “issues with scale”. She said providers had the capacity to expedite test results for anyone who announced that they were getting tested because they were a close contact, as opposed to as a precaution as a result of symptoms.
In light of the delays, Chant defended the right for medical professionals to require a negative Covid test before seeing a patient, insisting “anyone who needs urgent care can get urgent care”.
“We do need to have a bit of patience,” she said.
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The delays come as the number of Covid-19 tests in Sydney’s south-west catches up to levels seen in previous outbreaks, such as the northern beaches cluster, after rules were brought in requiring essential workers to have regular tests.
Last Wednesday alone more than 17,000 tests were done in the Fairfield LGA, the latest NSW Health data shows. In the seven days to Friday, 45,000 tests were carried out in Fairfield.
Testing increased rapidly after the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced that workers living in the LGA must get tested every three days.
How testing compares with previous outbreaks
More than 19,000 tests a day were carried out in the northern beaches at the peak of its outbreak in December. On a per-population basis, this is less than the number Fairfield recorded last week.
Beyond the sheer number of tests, experts say mandating testing among essential workers may actually be the key to getting the outbreak under control.
Fairfield is the LGA with the most active cases – 496 as of Sunday morning, with 122 under investigation. Caterbury-Bankstown is second with 136 cases and Liverpool third with 85. All are in south-west Sydney.
ProfCatherine Bennett from Deakin University says the testing mandate would do more than drive up total numbers.
“We need a lot of testing,” she said. “The risk is that a whole load of people that haven’t been to an exposure site and aren’t symptomatic go and get tested, and you see the percentage positive come down and feel safe, but in fact the pocket where the exposures have actually happened is still being under-tested.”
By mandating that essential workers get tested every three days – as NSW has done – Bennett says health officials are more likely to get a representative sample from across the community.
“These are people who sit across the community geographically and probably socially. They are people who are well, wouldn’t be attending work if they are not well or associated with an exposure site they are aware of. So testing that bit of the community by screening workers is another way to actually understand what is happening in the community.
“If the rates in [workers] are incredibly low, it tells you that you are probably getting on top of the outbreak. But if you are finding that 20% of those people have the virus, or 10%, you would think then think, ‘Oh my goodness this is more extensive than we thought,’ and then of the broader community comes under the spotlight again.”
Slow start in south-west Sydney outbreak
Testing in south-western Sydney appears to have been slower to respond to increasing case numbers than in the eastern suburbs in June, and in the northern beaches last year.
Bennett says there are a number of reasons why testing could have been slow to pick up, including casualised work, a lack of targeted messaging about the benefits of testing, as well as some cultural factors.
“A lot of people who work shift work do incredibly long hours to make up a living wage, and that’s the other thing – its access in the true sense of the word that we also have to think about. It’s not just about motivation or deterrence or barriers, it’s just about making it as simple and accessible as possible.”
South-west Sydney saw hours-long queues for Covid testing last week as the mandate came into place. This came on top of confusion among workers and business owners. Both could have played into the slow rate of testing.
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“There is potentially fear about repercussions, there can be different ways of thinking about transmission in the community,” Bennett says. “People may not want to know if they have been contributing to the spread …
“If people don’t understand how testing helps, if they don’t really understand how important it is, then you’re in a situation where they are not aware of what it adds – in a positive way – and not aware of the risks of them not being tested, whether that is to the whole effort to close this down or if it’s to their own family.
“So it is actually a whole cultural understanding of a health department and how people might need to work together in a pandemic. And if you don’t get good understanding in a part of the community then you don’t get that good transmission of information either, because people think, ‘I don’t know what that is about.’”