Already overworked and under the pump, pharmacists are bracing for yet another addition to their workload as the date for providing free rapid antigen tests to concession card holders draws near.
Rapid antigen tests (RATs) will be free to concession card holders from next week, but according to a survey conducted by Professional Pharmacists Australia, 90 per cent of pharmacists have reported problems sourcing the highly in-demand test kits.
The pressure is on top of the extra workload pharmacists have already taken on with the COVID-19 vaccination program. A third of survey respondents also said they were struggling to obtain enough vaccinations to meet the demand.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia ACT branch president Simon Blacker said pharmacists are concerned about how the concessional RATs program will roll out given the supply constraints currently being experienced.
From Monday, 24 January, Commonwealth concession cardholders will be able to access up to 10 RATs over a three-month period – with a maximum of five per month – through community pharmacies.
The problem, Mr Blacker explained, is that there might not be enough to go around.
“Any community pharmacy that chooses to participate in this program will have little to no stock to begin with so people will just need to be patient,” Mr Blacker said.
“When we have no stock at all, there’s no stock for the free program. There’s no stock for private sale. There’s just no stock at all.
“We’re just trying to manage expectations and asking for patience.”
The supply constraints on rapid antigen tests are beginning to ease for the ACT Government which has ordered 1.6 million test kits to distribute through its testing clinics and for the public health workforce.
But pharmacists cannot report the same.
“Pharmacies think they’re getting supplies and they just aren’t arriving,” Mr Blacker explained. “It’s really hard.”
According to Mr Blacker, community pharmacists still do not know when supply will reach a normal level, and he’s asking for patience, kindness and calm from the community for the time being.
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia will soon launch a website to serve as a “single source of truth” for finding rapid antigen tests.
The Guild’s president Trent Twomey has argued social media posts and consumer-run websites were causing more harm than good for people trying to source the test kits.
“Rather than driving around or monitoring Facebook accounts or waiting for friends to send a text message, you’ll be able to check in real-time on that website,” he said.
“Pharmacies will have control over putting up who’s got stock and what stock is available.”
At this stage, it’s expected to go live next Monday – the same day the concessional RATs scheme will go live. The URL has not been released by the guild.
Professor Twomey also accused the Federal Government of waiting too long to acknowledge just how important rapid antigen tests would be in the current phase of COVID-19.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said 70 million tests will arrive in the country in “the coming weeks and months”. Many of these will be distributed to aged care facilities and essential workforces.
Rapid antigen tests are expected to be the preferred test moving forwards as supply constraints and long queues make the PCR testing model unviable.