Anxiety at ongoing delays to testing

People waiting a week or longer for the results of their Covid-19 tests say the delays are making them anxious, even as the Government says they're nothing to worry about, Marc Daalder reports

Anand Rama says the worst part wasn't the waiting, it was that he had no idea how long he'd be waiting for.

Rama is one of tens of thousands of New Zealanders who have been tested for Covid-19, but his journey had a slight hiccup - it took him the better part of six days to receive his result.

Newsroom first reported delays in reporting test results prior to the lockdown, but the level four measures haven't alleviated this lag time, according to numerous accounts from people tested for the virus. Even the Prime Minister referred a specific case who experienced a long wait time to Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.

"People will be waiting and they will be anxious while they wait," Bloomfield told reporters during his Wednesday afternoon press conference.

That was certainly Rama's experience. "The time frame to get the test was just building anxiety," he told Newsroom.

"The problem that I had was I couldn't find any way of figuring out whether the test had fallen between the cracks or whether there was a current time frame on it or just any information around that itself."

Rama was tested on Thursday evening and received his result Wednesday morning - thankfully, it was negative.

Why delays?

David Murdoch, an expert on infectious disease at the University of Otago, Christchurch and an associate of one of the labs running Covid-19 tests, offered up several places where the process could see delays.

"I can't explain the delay but I imagine it would be variable across the country," he said.

"As part of the process, getting the sample to the lab can cause delays, especially if someone's away from a major centre. The test within the lab, hopefully, labs are trying to ramp up to do testing every day, but if something arrives in the evening, they wouldn't get to it until the morning. There could be a delay there."

"Getting the result out, they would tend to go to ordering clinicians and public health units and I suppose then there is relaying back to the individual patients themselves. Anywhere along that pathway could end in delays."

Chain of communication

That latter question, of reporting the result down through District Health Boards and hospitals to GPs and finally the patient, is what Bloomfield highlighted as the likely source of delays.

"I've had a couple of reports - including via the Prime Minister - of quite long waits for testing results to GPs and then on to people," he said. "Where I've had specific examples, including one this morning, I've contacted the DHB chief executive to follow up on how they could get the results out just as quickly to the GPs to make sure they can notify patients."

Jacinda Ardern zeroed in on the same problem. "The people often raising these issues are the person who's had the test done. It might not necessarily be that the test hasn't been processed, it's that that information hasn't been passed on through the chain, ending with the GP," she said.

"That's something that obviously we're acutely aware of and now working to make sure that that information reaches people even if the processing has already been done."

Only affecting negative results

However, Bloomfield stressed that these delays didn't bode ill for the public health response to Covid-19 because they were happening for negative tests.

"What I can say is this: If the test result is positive, the person is contacted immediately by the Public Health Unit and the appropriate action is taken. It has been taking, it sounds like, in some instances, too long for the negative result to get back. But what I can do is assure both practitioners and people waiting for results that if the test result is positive, they will be notified immediately," he said.

"The aim is to process all the swabs within a 24 hour period and then everyone should be notified within the next 24 hours."

Murdoch said this was because labs would prioritise reporting out the positive results they see. "I think they would certainly prioritise the positives. We're looking at less than two percent are positive, so you can imagine the numbers that are negative," he said.

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