COVID testing hubs anticipate closures in shift to rapid kits

Talking points

  • The Andrews government last week ended isolation payments for people awaiting PCR test results.
  • Most Victorians now testing positive to COVID-19 have used rapid antigen tests.
  • COVID-19 testing sources expect major PCR hubs to start closing in the coming months.

Pathology labs and COVID-19 testing providers are preparing for the possibility of shutting dedicated PCR test hubs within months as the country shifts its reliance to rapid home kits, in what would amount to a major shift in the pandemic response.

The Andrews government last week ended its $450 isolation payment for people who cannot work while awaiting PCR results, with rapid antigen tests now the method Victorians prefer when checking for COVID-19.

An empty COVID-19 testing site at The Alfred hospital on Monday.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Of the 5645 infections announced on Monday in Victoria, the majority – 4254 – arose from rapid antigen tests, compared with 1391 from PCR tests. It was only in January that rapid home kits were hard to come by – culminating in supplier Werko chartering four private plane-loads into the country – and Victorians queued for hours at testing hubs during the peak of the Omicron wave.

Dr Kate Harris, medical director of major pathology lab group 4Cyte, which has been taking and testing COVID-19 samples in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, said she expected symptomatic Australians would soon need to see their GPs for a PCR test.

People could then be checked for the coronavirus as well as rhinovirus and influenza, she said.

That view was shared by another industry source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, who speculated some major drive-through hubs would soon start shutting. All dedicated PCR facilities for COVID-19 could be closed by the middle of the year, the testing source further suggested, although the government was yet to provide that advice.

However, Melbourne Pathology was expecting to keep its testing capacity in coming months.

“For the foreseeable future, we will continue to maintain our capacity for COVID-19 PCR testing (if and when required) in the laboratory,” chief executive David Pinkus said in a statement to The Age.

Winter could bring another surge of infections and the risk of a new variant remains.

Asked if PCR testing could be wrapped up in July, Deputy Premier James Merlino said Health Minister Martin Foley would make appropriate changes based on health advice.

“But the pandemic’s not over. We still need to deal with this virus and that includes getting your third [vaccine] doses, includes vaccinating your children, includes getting a PCR test to confirm if you’ve got COVID,” Mr Merlino said on Monday.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Health said states and territories were responsible for COVID-19 testing under the national partnership to manage the pandemic.

Announcing an end to $450 payments to Victorian workers who miss shifts while waiting for PCR results, Industry Support and Recovery Minister Martin Pakula said PCR testing was not a major feature of the “new phase” of the pandemic.

Although the COVID-19 testing regime has pivoted to rapid antigen kits, with laboratories seeking accreditation to validate the rapid tests, supermarket giant Woolworths said demand had decreased in recent weeks since supply issues were resolved.

Dr Harris from 4Cyte said the industry was also preparing for the federal government to cut the Medicare rebate to the general pathology payment. The rebate for COVID-19 tests was most recently reduced to $72.25 until June 30, a payment Dr Harris said was still widely viewed as unsustainable.

In January, The Age revealed federal Health Minister Greg Hunt had sought an urgent investigation into millions of Medicare payments to private pathology providers that the Morrison government believed should have been billed in a 50-50 split with the states.

The federal department confirmed it had contacted pathology companies and state departments with “concerns regarding the appropriate use of Medicare and possible compliance activities”.

While most health experts support the use of rapid antigen tests, The Age has previously reported concerns about their accuracy.

Associate Professor David Anderson, deputy director of the Burnet Institute, last month said the tests were a useful screening tool. But he warned they could give people a false sense of security, detecting only about 80 per cent of infections in people with symptoms.

Community health provider cohealth – which has been running PCR testing hubs in Collingwood, West Footscray and Carlton – has also shifted its focus to rapid antigen tests, having hand-delivered 15,000 rapid tests to people in high-risk accommodation, trained bicultural workers, created how-to videos in multiple languages and helped people to self-report positive tests.

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