Government ramps up testing at the border

Frontline staff at the border and international air and maritime staff will receive regular testing for Covid-19 under a new national testing strategy, Marc Daalder reports

After two weeks at Level 1, the Government has revealed a national testing strategy that it expects will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Under the strategy, frontline border staff - like those in customs, biosecurity, immigration and other airport workers - as well as people employed in managed isolation and quarantine facilities and international air and maritime crew will receive regular testing for Covid-19, even if they display no symptoms. The border and isolation staff will also receive regular health checks.

For international air crew, testing will only be required for those travelling high-risk routes - currently Air New Zealand staff working flights from the western seaboard of the United States. Health Minister David Clark said the Government was in talks with other airlines that might fly those and other routes about implementing a mandatory testing regime for them as well.

The Air New Zealand staff who fly from the United States will be required to self-isolate upon arrival in New Zealand until their test result comes back negative.

The regularity of the testing of border and isolation workers remains unclear. Clark was unable to answer questions from reporters around what "regular" meant, saying only that the Ministry of Health would devise a different testing framework for different types of workers based on clinical judgment.

For the rest of the country, the Ministry of Health will carefully monitor DHB performance to ensure enough testing is going on and that everyone has access to a test if needed. While the Community Based Assessment Centres (CBACs) set up by DHBs under Level 4 to provide accessible testing could be closed, DHBs will have to demonstrate that they have other methods of providing tests to anyone who needs one.

Primary care providers will also be able to provide tests on request to anyone with any type of Covid-19 symptom, even if those people have no connection to another Covid-19 case or overseas travel.

"Anyone presenting to primary or secondary care with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 will be offered testing even if they have no history of international travel or contact with travellers. This is important for surveillance purposes," Clark said.

Clark said the Ministry of Health would conduct a weekly review of testing by DHB and ethnic group. Where DHBs fail to keep close to the national and regional averages, they will have to take specific actions to increase access.

"The ministry will also make clear to DHBs the Government’s expectation that there will continue to be a low bar to meet to obtain a Covid-19 test."

New Zealand has tested more than 340,000 people, giving it the highest test-to-confirmed-cases ratio of any country in the world, Clark said. The testing within managed isolation facilities, on days three and 12 of an individual's stay, is also now operating as intended.

There were two new cases in managed isolation facilities identified through the day three testing on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the country's national laboratory service, ESR, was able to test for Covid-19 in sewage. Sewage testing has proved crucial to identifying outbreaks overseas.

Meanwhile, Bloomfield was not optimistic about the performance of rapid, point-of-care tests that can return a result for individuals in 15 minutes to an hour. While the technology has been deployed overseas, Bloomfield said it was not accurate enough to provide useful results for New Zealand.

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