The Government’s Covid strategy slow metamorphosis to a reconnection with the world strategy is becoming evident as it puts a new emphasis on testing.
Most notable is yesterday’s announcement by the Director-General of health. Dr Ashley Bloomfield, of vastly stepped up usage of saliva testing.
This is nearly a year after the Ministry was advised to do so by Sir Brian Roche and Heather Simpson.
Roche chairs the Government’s Covid Independent Continuous Review, Improvement and Advice Group.
Bloomfield said yesterday that there will now be weekly testing of workers crossing the Alert Level boundaries in and out of Auckland.
“This is part of our overall efforts to fully control and end the Delta outbreak,” he said.
“Over the coming weeks, we have started engaging with employers and industries whose workers are affected now because this is surveillance testing that as these people don’t have symptoms, they will not be required to stand down or stay at home while awaiting their result, unless, of course, they have symptoms.
“And likewise, just as for other testing, there will be no cost for this testing.”
Bloomfield said the Ministry was still working through the details, but essential workers crossing the Auckland border would be expected to have had a test in the last seven days and be able to show proof of this.
“We know there are around 3000 essential workers who are crossing the legal boundary each day out of an estimated 220000 essential workers in Auckland,” he said.
“We are also working with a provider in Auckland to enable saliva-based testing to be rolled out and available over coming weeks to support that effort.”
Aside from the saliva tests of those crossing the border, Bloomfield said workers in MIQ facilities would now be tested twice a week.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government was also asking those who were permitted to travel for personal reasons to be tested.
“These are extra ways we can keep up our surveillance and ensure we contain the outbreak and stop it from spreading to other parts of the country,” she said.
“This also gives us extra confidence as we consider changes to alert level cities outside of Auckland.”
Obviously, what the Government is hoping is that by identifying cases early through widespread testing, it will be able to isolate those cases and avoid lockdowns.
It is a technique being applied in Singapore where new infections last week doubled to more than 1,200 – up from around 600 cases the week before.
Singapore will now expand its testing regime more aggressively to keep the Covid-19 situation under control, as the number of new infections last week
Announcing a range of measures on Monday to slow the spread, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said workers in more sectors will now have to undergo mandatory fast and easy rostered routine testing, with the frequency of tests increased from every 14 days to once a week.
“With all these measures, we hope that we can help to slow down transmission without having to go back to (a state of) heightened alert, or a circuit breaker,” Wong said.
The Government’s advisory group here, chaired by Otago epidemiologist, Professor Sir David Skegg, was asked by the Government to advise on the future of the elimination strategy once the borders began to open.
“Allowing more quarantine-free travel will increase the risk that SARS-CoV-2 enters the community, and even with high vaccination levels, there will be some clusters of infection and occasional large outbreaks,” he said.
“These can be stamped out by public health and social measures such as testing, together with rapid tracing and isolation of contacts, as well as physical distancing and mask-wearing where appropriate.”
Thus the Government is going to need more easily deployed surveillance testing as it moves away from lockdowns as its first line of defence against Covid.
It has also begun to step up contact tracing with the addition of around 500 tracers in Auckland deployed through the Auckland Council’s Southern Initiative, which is responsible for TSI is responsible for “kick-starting, enabling and championing social and community innovation in South Auckland.”
Working with the It company, Datacom, the additional contact tracers have been one of the reasons over 32,000 calls have been made to contacts since the current Auckland outbreak began.
But the extended contact tracing is a critical part of Skegg’s reconnection plan.
National’s Covid spokesperson, Chris Bishop, was yesterday critical of how long it has taken for the Government to introduce widespread saliva testing.
“Today’s move to introduce saliva testing as an additional testing technique for essential workers crossing the Auckland boundary is welcome but should have been underway a long time ago,” he said.
“It is ridiculous that in this current outbreak, people have had to line up for 10-12 hours to get a nasal PCR test. It will have meant some people would have simply given up or not even bothered to go and get a test. This is precisely the opposite of what we want to happen.
“With Delta, the aim should be to test as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This means making use of private sector saliva testing providers like Rako, as well as rapid antigen tests.”
There are two saliva testing companies. APHG, which is 48 per cent owned by the NZ Super Fund and which owns most of the private pathological labs in the country, and Rako, which is a private company promoting saliva test developed by the University of Illinois.
Rako, in particular, has been running a high profile public relations campaign to promote its product.
Bloomfield also said that the Ministry of health would continue to adapt and target its wastewater testing to complement its other measures.
That would include increasing the catchment size of the sampling, making more regular much of the sampling and concentrating on any sites where cases had been detected.
There should be negative results once all cases have been moved to quarantine facilities, Bloomfield said.
“‘I know we’re asking a lot of Aucklanders at the moment, and I recognise that these additional testing requirements might be inconvenient and indeed unwelcome for many,” he said.
“I want to reiterate how important it is and that the sole purpose is to ensure that we stamp out this Delta outbreak and Auckland can move down Alert Levels as quickly and as safely as possible.”