3 May 2021

Health authorities considering regular saliva swabbing as extra border staff testing for Covid-19

10:28 am on 3 May 2021

An increased Covid-19 testing regime is being considered for managed isolation and border workers, Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says.

Sample bottle for collecting saliva specimens at a Covid-19 testing station in Hong Kong.

Sample bottle for collecting saliva specimens at a Covid-19 testing station in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Authorities are considering introducing saliva testing every two to three days, in addition to existing nasal swab tests.

Bloomfield told Morning Report the consideration was in the wider context of the requirement of the border workforce to be vaccinated.

"We know that vaccinated people first can still get infected. And second, if they do, they're less likely to show symptoms. So therefore we're looking at the role of more frequent saliva testing to compliment the (nasal) swabbing."

Advice on the process would be given to the Minister of Health in the next couple of days, he said.

"It would be something we'd look, if it's approved, look to roll out more widely. Again, it's adding onto what are already a really tight level of measures in place.

"We don't think there's a need to necessarily do it daily, but to do saliva testing perhaps every two or three days, in addition to the (nasal) swabbing still being done."

Bloomfield was asked about the testing in the context of a draft paper whose authors include public health experts Michael Baker and Nick Wilson.

It recommended continued improvement of New Zealand's MIQ system.

Bloomfield said improving was "something we are doing all the time".

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield provides a Covid-19 update.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

He disagreed that MIQ breaches were failures as they implied there was "some state of perfection that can be reached".

News came in over the weekend that Customs had fired nine border workers who had not been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Bloomfield said he had and "an enormous amount of empathy, actually, for all our border workforces, because they have been doing great work over the last year to help keep new Zealanders safe.

"My understanding is that these were staff who, who clearly have had, as have all border staff, a good opportunity to be vaccinated. They were made aware of the option and what would happen if they weren't vaccinated. And I think Customs has been working carefully with both of them and other staff to make sure that all options are explored. And in this case there were no other options."

The travel bubble

Bloomfield said there were no new cases of Covid-19 following a scare in Perth where three new cases linked to a managed isolation facility in Perth ground travel to a halt.

However, any New Zealander who is still there and who have visited a location of interest can not get on a plane immediately. They need to wait 14 days in isolation from the date of exposure.

But Bloomfield said anyone who was a close contact would have been contacted, in isolation and tested.

"It's those people who were at those locations of interest at the times of interest who are deemed to be casual plus contacts. And what we're saying is they need to follow the instructions in Australia, which are two to isolate and be tested, but then not travel here for the balance of that 14-day period.

"They don't need to remain in isolation per se, but it's just - delay their travel here while they continue to monitor for symptoms."

There were a lot of locations of interest, but Bloomfield said he would be "very surprised if these possibly anybody, or even more than a few people who may have been at one of those locations of interest at the time of interest and been planning to travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days".

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