One of Queensland’s leading infectious diseases experts has called on the state government to rethink winding down Covid testing services given the current wave of infections.
On Saturday, Queensland recorded 9,404 new Covid cases, with eight deaths, and 295 patients in hospital, including 19 in ICU.
Covid infections had increased by more than 50% in the past two weeks, and the state’s chief health officer, John Gerrard, said on Friday that about one in 50 school-aged children had tested positive in the past week alone.
From 7 March, the state government tightened eligibility so that pathology labs could only conduct free, Medicare-funded Covid tests for patients who present with a doctor’s referral. For a free PCR test without a referral, patients must present at one of the state’s testing and fever clinics.
However, the state was closing many of its testing and fever clinics. Of Brisbane’s four metro south community screening clinics, two closed on Friday: the Logan West Community Centre and Nathan RAT drive-through distribution centre. In Cairns, the Showground Testing and Fever Clinic would close on Sunday.
The state’s online clinic finder also included several that were no longer open, leading to frustration and confusion among patients trying to do the right thing.
Dr Paul Griffin, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Queensland, said closing testing and fever clinics as cases grow was “a terrible plan”.
“Winding those things back right now is not the right time,” he said. “There’s this perception that we’ve won, we’ve moved past Covid and it’s clearly not the case.”
Debra Venables, from Woolloongabba, was isolating with her second dose of Covid in a month. When she called the Queensland Health Covid hotline to describe her symptoms, she was told she couldn’t have Covid twice in four weeks and shouldn’t get tested.
“As a scientist, that didn’t make sense. I had the same symptoms as people in my family who had tested positive, I had different symptoms to last time, and I’d tested negative on a PCR in between infections,” Venables said.
She said she was frustrated by having to pay for a telehealth appointment with her GP to check the official advice. “I didn’t want to be in my house longer than I needed to be, but at the same time I didn’t want to be in the street spreading Covid,” she said.
Her GP told her to get a PCR test, which later returned a positive result.
However, Venables said even finding an adult clinic to conduct the test was fraught. She eventually managed to get tested at the Queensland Children’s hospital clinic in south Brisbane, although the Queensland Health website said the testing facility was only for “children up to 16 years” and accompanying adults. Staff at the clinic confirmed they were testing anyone who turned up.
Griffin said the state needed to be making it easier, not harder, for parents to find out if their children had Covid.
“We haven’t eradicated this virus, and as we relax other restrictions such as mask-wearing we need to rely more on the basics, which is vaccination and testing,” he said.
Parent Sascha Fung, from Buranda, recently took her family, who were displaying symptoms, to her usual pathology clinic. “When we got the front of the line, we were told we now needed a referral to use QML and we’d have to pay $80 to get the test. That would have been three times $80,” Fung said.
She said her family went home and isolated instead, relying on results from rapid antigen tests (RATs).
But with the sensitivity of RATs inferior to PCRs, Griffin said it needed to be easy to get the latter when required.
“If people have symptoms and they’ve still tested negative on a RAT they need a PCR,” he said.
“We’re also seeing testing times blow out and I would have thought by this time in the pandemic we should have been getting these things right.”