Six-day testing delay raises concerns

Results of Covid-19 tests have been delayed for up to six days, raising questions about the efficacy of New Zealand's testing regime, Marc Daalder reports

Covid-19 tests taken on Thursday and Friday of last week have still not been completed, patients say. People who suspect they have the virus and have been given the go ahead from their GP to get a test have told Newsroom that they still haven't heard back, more than six days later.

One of the key elements to any national strategy in the fight against Covid-19 is testing. "We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test," World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the world last week.

In response, New Zealand dramatically ramped up its testing regime. As of Wednesday morning, more than 9,000 tests have been conducted in the country - up from 522 last Monday. But the new delays raise serious questions about the robustness and efficacy of New Zealand's testing system.

If this situation is the norm and not an outlier, then it could imply that there are many more cases of Covid-19 in the country that the Ministry of Health does not know about because it hasn't yet processed nearly week-old tests.

Three cases of delayed tests

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told Newsroom on Tuesday that the Ministry seeks to provide test results within 48 hours.

"It depends where the swab was taken, because we have the five laboratories around the country now processing, so it takes time to get the swabs there. But we would be aiming to get from the swab to the test result being notified to the patient within 48 hours. That would be what we would be aiming to do," he said.

In at least three cases reviewed by Newsroom, however, this did not occur.

In one of them, a man who returned to New Zealand from overseas and developed symptoms was tested on Thursday. His test was sent to a lab in Christchurch and he still has not heard back, six days after the test was first taken.

In a second case, Auckland resident Dil Khosa developed symptoms after spending time with people who had traveled from Singapore and Sydney in recent weeks. "I was actually just really sick with all the flu symptoms that you can possibly imagine," Khosa said.

After consultation with her GP, she was swabbed on Friday afternoon and her test was sent to Lablink at the Auckland District Health Board. Khosa lives with her brother, who has had to take time off work and self-isolate. Her sister, who she spent a significant amount of time with prior to developing symptoms, was also instructed to self-isolate.

As the lockdown deadline approached, Khosa grew increasingly nervous - because she was unable to leave the house, she had no way to prepare for alert level four. After speaking with Newsroom on Wednesday afternoon, Khosa received her result: it was negative.

A third case was a shorter timeframe - a Hawke's Bay woman returned from overseas on Friday, developed symptoms and was tested on Sunday. She was told she would have her results in two days, maximum, but still had not received them as of Wednesday afternoon.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

Backlog raises concerns

Professor Michael Baker, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of Otago's Department of Public Health, worries that a significant testing backlog could hide widespread transmission of Covid-19 in the community.

"That is obviously not acceptable. It has to be much faster than that," Baker said.

"In general, we know that our testing and follow-up capacity is really stretched in New Zealand. It is ramping up quickly, but we started from a very low base. This is obviously not something that the system has been set up to do.

"One of the main justifications for putting the country into shutdown is exactly this problem. One of the really important things is that we use this four weeks to ramp up our capacity for testing and isolation of cases and contact tracing and quarantine."

The news also comes just days after academics and lab techs warned that the country's testing regime was being stretched to its limits.

In comment provided through the Science Media Centre, University of Otago Associate Professor James Ussher, Labtests director Gary McAuliffe and Canterbury DHB Dr Joshua Freeman say "diagnostic labs are really struggling to maintain testing capacity due to supply chain issues, which will be ongoing, as they are worldwide".

"In an ideal world we would test all people with influenza-like symptoms even if they had no known contact with a case or travel, in order to prove there is no undetected community transmission. However, this is impossible given current supply chain issues," Ussher, McAuliffe and Freeman wrote.

"The influx of test requests outside the current case definition is currently threatening to overwhelm our capacity to test at all. Labs are working extremely hard to increase testing capacity, but there are many pinch points and issues to be addressed and it is not a straight-forward exercise for testing labs to scale up their operations.

"Messaging to the public about testing is very important. The Ministry of Health is doing the best it can under the circumstances, but the testing labs are in crisis."

Read more of Newsroom's Covid-19 coverage here. 

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

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