One of Australia’s largest pathology companies says it does not expect demand for COVID-19 PCR tests to drop significantly, despite changes in the definition of close contacts announced yesterday.
- Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the change is an adjustment based on the understanding of the new variant, Omicron
- The pathology company 4Cyte says that the growth in cases and the scarcity of fast test kits mean that test centers will still be under pressure
- AMA President Omar Khorshid says he expects hospital admissions to increase in the coming weeks due to Thursday’s decision
On Thursday, the new definition was adopted at an extraordinary meeting of the National Cabinet.
Now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says a close contact will be someone who has spent four hours or more with a confirmed case in a household or household-like environment, such as a nursing home.
These contacts would only be required to quarantine for seven days and take a rapid antigen test (RAT) on day six.
He said the new definition would take effect from 31 December in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and ACT.
The changes were expected to reduce the burden on PCR test centers across the country, which have experienced large queues and long delays during the holiday period.
But 4Cyte’s medical director, Kate Harris, said the growth in COVID-19 cases and the scarcity of RAT kits would continue to drive people to PCR test centers in large numbers.
“I was working on [testing] the queue yesterday, and a family of four heading to Queensland on January 3 said “we want to get our PCR test because no one can buy fast antigen tests anymore”.
“I’m very confused about the close contact message yesterday, and this is where we’re all confused, because what’s the difference between a fully vaccinated person and a non-vaccinated person?”
Doctors fear a new definition will see cases missed
The Australian Medical Association has expressed fears that the country’s new definition of close contacts will only accelerate the spread of COVID-19.
“Anyone who catches Omicron in a restaurant or pub, for example, and who is asymptomatic does not know that they are infected and can transmit the virus to more vulnerable people.
“The change will help maintain test capacity and should limit the number of fired health workers, but it will come at the expense of speeding up the outbreak.”
Rules should reflect the new variant, says PM
In announcing the changes, Mr Morrison said it was an adjustment based on the understanding of the Omicron variant.
The strain is the most contagious seen in this country since the pandemic began.
Data suggest that it causes less serious illness than previous variants, but exactly how much remains to be confirmed.
“Of course we will see an increase in cases,” Mr Morrison said.
Across Australia, where the virus has been circulating for less than a month, COVID-related hospitalizations have increased, but not at the same rapid rate as new infections.
“It appears that the National Cabinet is prepared to bet that a massive Omicron outbreak will not cause a large number of hospitalizations,” said Dr. Khorshid.
“Although the initial data are encouraging, we expect hospital admissions to increase in the coming weeks, simply because of the very large number of cases, which will be far greater than the positive tests indicate, due to today’s decision.”
Dr. Khorshid had previously warned that changing the definition was a bad idea.
‘Rapid tests toilet paper from 2022’
In Victoria, where the state has recorded consecutive days of record high infection rates, AMA State Department President Roderick McRae said it was a “politically appropriate” response to an “overwhelming PCR capacity”.
Dr. McRae said the new options seemed to be a response to the Omicron strain, but the Delta variant still existed.
He said the options would take effect just before “superspreader events,” such as New Year’s Eve.
Dr. McRae said another problem was the lack of availability of rapid antigen tests.
States and territories have agreed to provide rapid antigen testing only free of charge to those who have symptoms or are in contact with known cases.
“It is very difficult to locate a rapid antigen test, but we are introducing this rule in eight hours time,” he said.
“So we have to have a much longer lead time to get the logistics needed to get the fast antigen tests to arrive in Australia … and then be made available.
There have been calls to make the RATs free, but Mr Morrison said there were no such plans, except for vulnerable groups like those in nursing homes.
He said the government had been informed that providing this security to the private pharmacy industry would give the industry confidence to ensure the RATs were “back on the shelf”.
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