Victoria’s COVID test meltdown to continue into next week, state says

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Victoria’s coronavirus testing system, swamped by the surge in new cases and the failure to provide consumers with access to rapid antigen tests, will remain overwhelmed until at least next week, the Andrews government says.

The main private providers of pathology in Victoria halted testing at 54 centres around the state this week, needing to reset their testing processes to deal with the sudden jump in positive cases.

People queue on Wednesday for a coronavirus test at a Bourke Street centre.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Their labs process about three-quarters of Victoria’s coronavirus tests and have continued to push through tests taken before this week, but are not yet processing new swabs.

The closures have added to lengthy queues at the state’s remaining 206 COVID-19 testing centres, combining with the scarcity of rapid antigen tests to create the current crisis.

Before the spike brought on by the Omicron strain of COVID-19, pathology swabs for coronavirus found 2 per cent of people testing positive. Now, upwards of 20 per cent of people return positive tests.

“It’s almost one in four now of the cases that we’re testing coming back as positive cases,” Victoria’s COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said on Tuesday.

Victorian COVID commander Jeroen Weimar on Tuesday announced private pathology labs testing for coronavirus would close because of backlogs.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The sheer volume of people wanting tests has meant the main pathology firms – Sonic, Healius, Australian Clinical Labs and 4Cyte – need to change how they process their results.

Victoria’s acting premier, Jacinta Allan, on Wednesday said the private pathology labs would remain out of service for the rest of this week. “So that those private clinics can clear the backlog that’s sitting in the private pathology labs, so we can reset and restart once they reopen.”

Acting Premier Jacinta Allan on Wednesday.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

That “reset” will come too late for Andrew Cartledge in Horsham, which has had two testing centres. The town had had only a handful of coronavirus cases since the pandemic started, until Christmas 2021 when numbers started to rise.

Mr Cartledge’s daughter felt sick a week ago, and one of her friends had returned a positive rapid test, so she, along with Mr Cartledge and his wife, got PCR tested. That was last Thursday. His daughter only received her positive result on Wednesday. “She was pretty crook for a couple of days, but she’s fine now,” he said.

Mr Cartledge got his test back after five days, but his wife was still awaiting her result; she had tested negative to a rapid antigen test that the family received from a friend. There were no rapid antigen tests available in the area, Mr Cartledge said.

“The delay in getting results is huge,” he said. “One or two days’ wait, yeah okay, but for it to take a week, it’s beyond a joke.”

Adding to the pressure on the system was a 15 per cent reduction in payments for pathology firms from January 1 for both private and public labs. It means private labs now get about $72 per PCR test they process, down from $85, and public labs about $36, down from $42.50. A report by Public Pathology Australia last year recommended both private and public labs receive a fee of about $50 per PCR test, to reflect the true cost of completing them.

Just under 60,000 PCR tests were done in Victoria on Tuesday, with almost 18,000 new positive cases – or roughly 30 per cent of people tested contracting coronavirus. It compared to 109,000 PCR tests done in NSW on Tuesday and 35,000 positive cases, or about 32 per cent. On December 22 last year, Victoria completed 92,000 coronavirus swab tests, with just 1500 positive cases, or about 2 per cent.

The Victorian Greens’ health spokesman Tim Read, a GP before entering parliament, said the state needed to urgently review its approach to testing, and how it communicated the need for a test.

“As the testing system collapses under the increasing numbers, we need to rethink the reasons for testing,” Mr Read said. “We need to preserve tests with quick results for seriously ill cases, and for health and aged care staff, but we can’t test everyone.”

He said the government still needed to understand data from the epidemic and who was getting sick. “We still need to track the incidence rate, which may mean sentinel testing systems because [the] lack of access to testing means our current numbers are falsely low.”

The state Opposition’s health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said the testing system was in “chaos”.

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