New South Wales has been thrown into a COVID testing crisis as daily case numbers skyrocket, reaching a new record of 21,151 on New Year’s Eve. Per head of population, the state now has a higher level of transmission than the United States, according to New York Times data. PCR testing clinics are overwhelmed, many people are waiting close to a week for their results, and rapid antigen test kits are almost impossible to find.
Tens of thousands of people worried that they are infected are scrambling from clinic to clinic and from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of a test. People have been camping overnight in lines outside of clinics. Social media is flooded with stories of people being turned away at testing sites. After waiting in the rain and sun for six hours at the Royal Prince Alfred clinic, one local resident told Red Flag that they were greeted by an exhausted health worker with: “Wow! I didn’t even think we would get to the 8:30am’s today!”
Aerial footage shows lines of cars queuing for hundreds of metres outside some clinics. The Byron Bay testing centre was at capacity just hours after it opened this week because surrounding clinics closed over Christmas. According to an ABC News report, one woman needing a negative result to get back into the Northern Territory camped out in her car at the Macksville clinic on the mid-north coast for 26 hours.
Some people are now choosing to stay at home when symptoms appear, when sharing a household with a positive case, or when their rapid antigen test returns a positive result. Why line up for eight hours while sick if you won’t get a result for a week? A report released yesterday by OzSAGE, an independent advisory group of epidemiologists and health policy experts, warns that this “will reduce our surveillance capacity for new variants and give falsely low case numbers”.
Without a functioning testing system, even basic workplace safety protocols are thrown into disarray. A retail worker at a major telecommunications company described the immediate implications. She told Red Flag that she was exposed to COVID at work and now must show a negative result before returning. But the first clinic she went to at 8am turned her away after an hour, the second was already closed and the third—after she stood in a line full of coughing people for another hour—turned her away before midday.
The New South Wales Liberals are using the disorder caused by the testing system crisis to reduce the number of public health measures. Many are outraged at the perceived lack of preparation and total incompetence. But the high demand for tests has not been sprung on an unsuspecting government. When cases began to jump in mid-December, at the same time QR codes and masks mandates were dropped, Health Minister Brad Hazzard speculated that NSW could reach 25,000 cases a day by the end of January.
Not increasing the resources and funding available to the testing system is not just an act of incompetence but fits with the reality that we all are being forced to “live with the virus”. The government’s prioritisation of business as usual is the reason it will not fix the problems: doing so would require tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of workers to isolate. The government and the business lobby just want everyone who can to keep working.
Under pressure, Premier Dominic Perrottet reinstated QR codes and indoor mask mandates and announced plans to distribute rapid antigen test kits for free. These measures, while necessary, are too little, too late and have not prevented the exponential growth in cases. Besides, a further easing of measures was announced this week.
The isolation period for healthcare workers who are close contacts of a positive COVID case has been slashed from fourteen days to seven. The Queensland government caved to the pressure and reversed the order for a PCR test before arriving. Much to the pleasure of the hospitality and tourism industry, Perrottet has double downed on his “let it rip” mentality, urging Sydneysiders to go ahead with their New Year’s Eve plans while also complaining that people are getting “unnecessary” PCR tests.
How quickly “personal responsibility” has turned into just blaming individuals for the health crisis.
Similar measures are now being adopted federally. Following the National Cabinet meeting on 30 December, Scott Morrison announced that only household, or household-like contacts of confirmed cases will be considered close contacts and abolished the casual contact category entirely.
This means you can work right next to a COVID-positive person for eight hours but will not be considered a contact and are not required to get a test or isolate. Contacts will now only have to get tested if they are symptomatic, or if they return a positive rapid antigen test on their sixth day of a week-long isolation. These measures are about keeping workplaces open, not leading a public health response.
“We will miss so many more cases with this new, more narrow definition of a close contact”, Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid said in a statement. “Anyone catching Omicron in a restaurant or pub, for example, and who is asymptomatic won’t know they’re infected and could pass the virus on to more vulnerable people ... it will come at the cost of accelerating the outbreak.”
The horrible truth is that the testing crisis and easing of restrictions despite skyrocketing cases fits the course the state and federal governments have set for Australia’s pandemic response. While we are constantly reminded by politicians and the media that the Omicron variant is less likely to send you to hospital on a case-by-case basis, this will be of little comfort to the nearly 1,500 people around the country who are currently in hospital with the virus.
“The impacts of a fragmented testing system and disrupted health system will be felt most by our elderly, lower socio-economic groups, First Nations people, people with disability and regional populations”, the OzSAGE report concludes. “[A] fatalistic approach will be fatal for some people.”