The demand for COVID-19 testing in Sydney is exceeding capacity, with long queues forecast for Tuesday and Health Minister Brad Hazzard accusing the Queensland Premier of “effectively perverting the purposes of pathology testing”.
COVID-19 testing clinics were again plagued by hours-long queues on Monday and people were turned away, as it was revealed another 1000 Sydneysiders had been sent negative results in error over the holiday weekend.
The additional group of 995 people, who were tested at SydPath COVID-19 clinics on December 23 and 24, were “prematurely” sent a message indicating they had a negative result, the provider said in a statement on Monday.
Those affected were contacted on Monday and SydPath said they would receive their correct result by Monday night.
“To be frank this could have happened to any organisation,” said director of strategic operations at Histopath Greg Granger.
“We are well beyond capacity both on the ground and in the laboratories. The end-to-end process is very complex.”
Long queues formed outside Sydney’s testing clinics on Monday, with many closed or operating at reduced hours due to the public holiday. Tuesday is also a public holiday.
A number of sites closed before midday “due to overwhelming demand”, NSW Police said, adding they expected this would continue over coming days.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Monday she was considering easing testing rules for interstate travellers, foreshadowing the state’s day five mandatory PCR test was likely to be replaced by a rapid antigen test.
However, she said authorities were still reviewing whether the same could be possible for the test required 72 hours before crossing the border, which is what has contributed to testing queues in NSW, the ACT and Victoria.
Mr Hazzard questioned why the change could not be made now, accusing Ms Palaszczuk of “effectively perverting the purposes of pathology testing” and alleging 25 per cent of NSW’s PCR tests were people trying to travel to Queensland.
“If Queensland thinks people are arriving free of COVID, that’s not necessarily true. These tests have been done three or four days before arriving, it’s counterproductive,” he told the Herald.
“This rule is contributing to the breakdown of the biggest pathology system in the country. We are not getting the turnaround times we need.”
The latest SydPath mix-up was uncovered as part of investigations into how the provider incorrectly sent 400 COVID-positive people negative results on Sunday. SydPath, operated by St Vincent’s Hospital, said it had concluded the bungle was “human error”.
“Once again, we are sincerely sorry for this error and acknowledge the significant impact it has had on those involved,” it said on Monday.
On Monday night, NSW Health announced isolation rules for healthcare workers would be eased to help boost staffing numbers across the hospital system.
Under the changes, workers who are close contacts of COVID-19 cases will be allowed to leave isolation and return to work after seven days.
Previously, staff were excluded from the workplace for 14 days due to the requirement for close contacts to avoid high-risk settings, such as hospitals.
The new rules came amid staff shortages across Sydney hospitals, with Health Department Deputy Secretary Nigel Lyons saying the changes would help maintain capacity within the system.
NSW reported its first death of a person infected with the Omicron variant of the virus, which has driven rising case numbers.
The man in his 80s acquired his infection at the Uniting Lilian Wells aged care facility at North Parramatta, where 33 residents and 11 staff are COVID-positive.
Two other people – another western Sydney man in his 80s and a woman in her 90s from the Central Coast – also died with COVID-19.
NSW reported 6324 new cases on Monday. There were 520 people in hospital including 55 in intensive care.
Despite the rising case numbers, hospitalisations have not risen to the same extent they did during the Delta wave, a trend Australian National University infectious diseases expert Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake said could be attributed to the possible mildness of Omicron, higher vaccination rates or better treatments.
The younger demographic of cases in the wave – which has primarily affected people in their 20s living in Sydney and Newcastle – may also be playing a role.
“It’s a very young, mobile and social demographic who are getting it, who are less likely to get severe COVID,” he said.
Over the past week, 13,895 people infected with COVID-19 have been in their 20s, representing about 36 per cent of all cases. An additional 7675 of the week’s cases were aged in their 30s (just under 20 per cent). More than 75 per cent of cases were aged under 40.
Sydney’s Delta wave also primarily affected people in their 20s and 30s, although by October and November children too young to be vaccinated were the group most likely to be infected.
During the Avalon and Berala clusters over last summer, only about a quarter of cases (56 of 218) were aged 20 to 39. The proportion was roughly the same (31 per cent, or 171 of 556 cases) during the Crossroads cluster which affected predominantly western Sydney in mid-2020.
In each of these clusters, before COVID-19 vaccines were available, more cases were seen in older age groups.
NSW will need to wait until the end of the week, or possibly longer given pathology lab delays, to see the impact of Christmas gatherings on transmission.
Health authorities had expressed concern about younger generations mixing with older and vulnerable relatives while unknowingly infectious.
“At this stage we haven’t seen the big surge in hospitalisations we worry about,” Dr Senanayake said.
“But NSW has had its first Omicron death: it shows that Omicron can kill people, and we know this from the UK data as well. It may be that Omicron takes longer to hospitalise people, or that the cases are younger.”
NSW processed 97,241 tests in the 24 hours to 8pm on Sunday, down from 109,545 tests the day before.
Earlier this month, COVID-19 testing in the state reached a peak of more than 164,000 tests in a day.
“To ease pressure on testing clinics, we encourage you to only get a PCR test if you do have COVID-19 symptoms, or you are a household contact, or have had a high or moderate risk exposure to COVID-19, or have been directed to be tested by NSW Health or the Department of Education,” NSW Health’s Dr Christine Selvey said, adding that people who needed a PCR test for interstate travel could still attend clinics.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.