22 December 2021

UPDATED: Testing and tracing rethink flagged as ACT breaks daily record with 58 new cases

| Lottie Twyford
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The view from within the queue at Garran. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

UPDATED 4 pm: ACT Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith has flagged a need for changes to the test, trace, isolate and quarantine arrangements as caseloads increase and the system is put under pressure.

By midday today, 2781 tests had been completed – an increase of 300 on the same time yesterday.

“Yesterday, our teams did almost 7000 tests, the fourth-highest number of swabs that have been taken throughout the pandemic,” she said.

“It was an incredible job.”

Ms Stephen-Smith again noted that interstate testing requirements are straining capacity at testing centres. This afternoon, wait times fell to 40 minutes at Garran and 45 minutes at Nicholls, but there is still a 90-minute wait at Mitchell and a two-and-a-half-hour wait at Kambah.

This morning the wait time at Garran was more than four hours.

Due to the queues, people are reminded to bring water, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.

The Health Minister said she understood people’s frustrations, but “there is not a lot more we can do about it”.

“There is just a limit to how many more staff we can put on at this very busy time of year.”

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She also said the pressure on testing clinics was not unique to the ACT and “it would be great if other jurisdictions could reconsider their requirements” for entry into their states.

However, she said she understood why they had put their rules in place and that “it’s unlikely to change before Christmas”.

Acting Chief Minister Yvette Berry echoed the sentiments, saying the testing systems are “under immense pressure”.

She urged kindness and patience.

Ms Stephen-Smith noted there will have to be changes to the test, trace, isolate and quarantine system “if we start to see too many cases daily”.

“They are not going to be able to undertake a detailed case interview with every single one of those people in the way they have been doing to identify the source of the case and every single person they have come into contact with,” she explained.

A shorter interview will likely be conducted with positive cases.

She noted the definition of close and casual contacts could also be altered.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke this afternoon after what he said was a “cooperative, positive” National Cabinet.

He said state and territory leaders had agreed it was time to develop a nationally consistent approach to the definition of close and casual contacts.

“We have asked the AHPPC [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] within the next fortnight for a clear recommendation on that,” Mr Morrison said.

Experts will also provide advice at National Cabinet’s next meeting about whether or not PCR tests should be required for interstate travel.

“We’ve all seen the terrible queues and the long waits people have had. Some 20 to 25 per cent of those people waiting are not symptomatic. They’re not a close or casual contact, they just want to travel to another state,” Mr Morrison says.

“This is putting unnecessary pressure on the system.”

Mr Morrison said further advice will be given to see if the country could move to implement the more simple measure of rapid antigen testing (RAT) which could then alleviate some pressure on the system.

The queue at the Garran COVID-19 testing centre.

The wait time at the Garran COVID-19 testing centre is more than three hours. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

11 am: The ACT has recorded 58 new cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to 8 pm last night, and COVID-19 testing clinics across the Territory have again opened to extremely long queues as Canberrans rush to get tested.

The city’s health authorities have previously said there is almost an even split between those getting tested for travel purposes and those identified as a contact or have symptoms.

The overnight addition of almost 30 new exposure sites to the ACT Government’s COVID-19 website also likely contributed to this morning’s extreme demand.

Most of the new sites were hospitality venues and gyms.

Testing wait times at Garran are upwards of four hours, while at Kambah and Nicholls, wait times are now more than three-and-a-half hours. At Holt, wait times of almost two hours have been reported.

The Mitchell site has been closed to new arrivals as it reached capacity early this morning.

Temperatures are today expected to hit 29 degrees, presenting additional logistical challenges.

At Garran, nurses handed out water and directed elderly people, parents with children and anyone else unable to stand for long periods to the front of the queue.

Security guards managed the queue to allow as many people as possible to wait in the shade, although this wasn’t always possible.

One woman fainted while in the line, presumably due to the heat and the lengthy time she’d queued for.

Other people in line became irritable with nurses, saying they had been ignored or forgotten about.

Yesterday, Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith urged patience and calm. She said health workers are people with families, too, and deserve to be treated with respect.

Authorities have repeatedly encouraged people to attend testing clinics in the middle of the day rather than in the mornings and afternoons/early evenings.

Region Media has also confirmed that another hospital staff member has tested positive for COVID-19, further raising concerns about hospital staffing as teams have to be furloughed over the festive period.

The team member worked in medical imaging and had not been at work since Friday, 17 December, according to an email sent to staff.

The additional 58 cases of COVID-19 take the ACT’s total active caseload to 174. Of these, three are in hospital. No one is in ICU or being ventilated due to COVID-19.

Of the Territory’s 12-plus population, 98.4 per cent are fully vaccinated.

A total of 3759 negative test results were recorded in the 24 hours to 9 am this morning.

Interstate, NSW’s daily case numbers have again hit a record high, with the state recording 3763 new cases of COVID-19 and two deaths.

There are 302 people in hospital with the virus and 40 people are in the ICU.

NSW Health says 94.9 per cent of the state’s 16-plus population has received a first dose of the vaccine and 93.4 per cent have received two.

In Victoria, 1503 new cases have been reported as well as six deaths.

There are 394 people hospitalised with the virus, and 92 per cent of the state’s 12-plus population is now fully vaccinated.

National Cabinet will meet today to discuss Omicron after the Prime Minister called an informal meeting.

The indoor mask mandate, introduced in the ACT yesterday, will be discussed, along with the possibility of bringing forward booster doses and whether the definition of fully vaccinated will need to incorporate a third shot or booster dose.

This morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged state and territory leaders to reconsider the requirement of PCR testing for travel to help ease the burden on testing facilities around the country.

He said this will also be on the meeting’s agenda.

More to come.

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