10 Dec 2021

Lab boss warns of Covid testing delays in holiday hotspots

From Checkpoint, 5:20 pm on 10 December 2021

Some small towns around the country may face Covid-19 test result delays this summer if a case causes a surge of testing.

When Auckland's border dissolves next week, thousands of people are expected to start travelling as part of the summer holiday migration. 

With more people on the move, there's a greater risk Covid-19 could surface off the beaten track. 

NZ Institute of Medical Laboratory Science president Terry Taylor told Checkpoint some small towns do not have lab capacity to process tests and need to ship samples to elsewhere. 

"In these areas, those swabs that are taken will end up being sent to the mothership so to speak, so one of the larger laboratories that's nearby those regions. So there will be delays when this starts to kick on."

He said holiday hotspots simply did not have lab capacity for onsite Covid-19 PCR testing. 

Taylor said there was a "distinct possibility" of such delays in holiday hotspot areas. "And I think the people traveling to those regions need to be very, very aware of that."

There was only a small pool of medical laboratory scientists and technicians in New Zealand, Taylor said.

It was not just the testing capacity but it was the medical capacity in the regions, he said.

"It really is just a matter of time before we really do get community spread throughout New Zealand and our staff are going to more than likely bare the brunt of that."

He said laboratories did not only do Covid-19 testing.

"I will reiterate all of the big hospitals will obviously still be operating 24-hour services doing the acute work that's coming through. But be aware we do everything. We don't just do Covid testing, so sometimes things are just going to have to wait in those periods."

Meanwhile, Taylor warned that Napier Port's decision to do its own surveillance testing for Covid-19 is a disaster waiting to happen.

The port says the saliva tests, which are done by a nurse and a trainee, will not replace official public health testing but provide an extra layer of protection.

However, Taylor said these tests would not have any legitimacy.

"This is not a job that you walk in off the street and have someone that's wandering around doing the testing, that is not how it goes, it's a very controlled environment."

Taylor said to have unregulated testing could put the wider population at risk.

The Ministry of Health declined an interview with Checkpoint.

In a statement, it said Covid-19 testing remained a priority over the Christmas and New Year period. 

"The ministry works closely with DHBs and laboratories to manage demands for testing, and to reiterate the importance of processing and returning tests as quickly as possible. 

"It should be noted that samples of close contacts of cases and high risk individual are prioritised by laboratories."

Community testing centres would continue to be open throughout the holiday period, it said.

Urgent care clinics will also be available for testing purposes. These are privately run and it is up to them to manage their hours of operation and staffing levels to meet demand for their services during this period.