People are raising concerns over the long wait to get their Covid-19 testing results back. 

But with Covid-19 testing numbers in the tens of thousands every day, medical laboratory scientists - the people who check Covid-19 tests to see if they’re positive or negative - are becoming overwhelmed as testing demand skyrockets during the Omicron outbreak. 

Terry Taylor, the president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science, breaks down how testing works and why it’s taking so long. 

When people get tested for Covid-19, they usually have a polymerase chain reaction test (PCR). 

This is when a small cotton-bud on a long stick goes all the way to the back of your nose. The result time varies but usually takes 24 to 72 hours. These tests are done by a health official in a clinic or testing centre. 

Taylor said during the Delta outbreak, medical laboratory scientists were able to do upwards of 50,000 PCR samples per day for very short periods. 

The PCR samples are usually tested in a batch or sample pool of up to 10 other tests.

Taylor said pooling allowed medical laboratory scientists to put up to 10 suspected individual negative tests into one sample tube to be analysed. 

“If that pooled sample was positive then we would go back to the original individual samples and test,” Taylor said.

“If there was a clinically likely case and/or a close contact they would always get tested individually to speed up turnaround times.”

But in a press release from last Friday, the New Zealand Medical Institute of Medical Laboratory Science said “the PCR testing demand is outstripping our ability to function in a clear and coordinated way due to the sheer numbers of samples coming through the laboratory doors”. 

“As the positivity rates have increased, the ability to perform mass pooling of samples has decreased resulting in a drop in PCR testing capacity.” 

Taylor said staff were pulling out all the stops to try and get on top of the demand. 

They were determined to get through this, he said. 

Staff, equipment, consumables and logistics all play a part in how fast a result is delivered, Taylor said.

“We are finding this pretty tough at the moment. It is never a nice feeling to know you are physically just not able to make headway no matter how hard you work.”

Moving forward, Taylor said “medically defined diagnostic pathways” will be needed in phase three of the Government’s Omicron plan.

“This will help labs to regain control of the situation and maintain the rest of our services.”

“The medical laboratory workforce has been working on the edge for two years solid. They are tired and beleaguered at present but still determined. No one in the world has defeated Omicron and we are all learning on our feet,” he said.

“Please respect that long wait times do not mean a dysfunctional workforce. There are only so many hours in a day and we just cannot do any more than that.”

Taylor said if people are sick and clinically in need of PCR testing these will always be prioritised.

“These patients will get results within that 24 to 72 hour window and this time will drop as the backlog is cleared and the Rapid Antigen Tests start to take effect.”

From Wednesday, Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are being used as the main testing method in Auckland community testing centres. 

RATs are a front-of-nose swab that provides a Covid-19 negative or positive result after waiting just a few minutes. 

These go about 2 centimetres into an adult’s nostril and no more than 2 cm for a child. They can be done at home.

RATs were rolled out yesterday to testing centres in Waikato, Bay of Plenty and the Southern district health board area to be used along with PCR tests.

According to the Ministry of Health, there are currently 6.9 million RATs in the system with around 14.7 million more expected by the end of the month.

“It was anticipated that as the outbreak grows, more people would have Covid-19and there would be more close contacts who need to be tested,” a Ministry of Health spokesperson said.

“The increased use of RATs in phase two and phase three of our response will relieve pressure on the PCR testing and reserve it for those who are unwell and more susceptible to the effects of Covid-19.” 

This new testing regime in Auckland means people with symptoms and/or asymptomatic close contacts who return positive RAT results will be considered a case, the spokesperson said. 

They will not need to have this further confirmed through a PCR test. 

“This will further relieve pressure on the system.” 

This change will also be rolled out to other centres, the spokesperson said.

Top Image: Person getting tested for Covid-19 by a Rapid Antigen Test. (File photo) Photo: dragana991/iStock

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