Health experts say rapid antigenic tests (RATs) will be an essential tool for the management of Omicron in New Zealand, but the government has not yet determined how they will be used.
The health ministry has confirmed it has 3.5 million tests nationwide and 20 million on order, which will arrive in batches over the next six months.
“We are working to get more,” said a spokesperson.
Experts say the country could potentially need hundreds of thousands of tests to meet demand if there was a rapid acceleration of Covid-19 with the highly transmissible Omicron strain.
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It’s still unclear whether the tests will be publicly funded and free.
The ministry is finalizing a solution to release test results “if necessary,” a spokesperson said.
“The role of RATs in the public health response has not yet been determined, including the communication of results.”
Tests currently have limited availability. They can be used by some government departments, businesses, health and elderly care providers to be used by asymptomatic workers as a screening tool and for unvaccinated domestic air travelers.
The ministry’s website says rapid antigen self-test tests will be available for purchase “for the general public at the start of the new year.”
The ministry did not respond when asked how many tests New Zealand would need, according to the modeling.
Public health expert Michael Baker said rapid antigen tests, which could be used at home, could confirm positive status among people with symptoms, if a rapid escalation in the number of cases made access to traditional tests available. – PCR tests – and too difficult contact tracing.
In Australia, where the number of cases fell to just under 72,000 daily cases as of Monday, some states will require a rapid negative antigen test for children to attend school.
The explosion of cases in Australia, driven by Omicron, has exceeded traditional PCR testing, the capacity of laboratories and hospital departments.
But the huge global demand for a limited supply of rapid antigen tests – in addition to Covid infections among transport workers – has made them difficult to access.
GP and Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Bryan Betty said if Omicron arrived in New Zealand today there wouldn’t be enough RATs.
“The more we enter the country, the better. How much do we need… it’s about saying as much as possible to cope with what is potentially to happen.
Betty said RATs should be open to access, but this can start with more vulnerable or remote communities and spread to the wider community as infection rates increase.
Elderly care provider Ryman Healthcare, which operates in Australia and New Zealand, began using rapid antigen tests to screen visitors and staff across New Zealand from early December.
The company employs around 6,000 people in New Zealand.
Chief Operating Officer Cheyne Chalmers said asymptomatic visitors and staff use about one test per week and “one to two” positive cases have been detected so far.
A Tauranga staff member received a positive RAT test, but was later confirmed to be negative in a follow-up PCR test, Chalmers said.
In two large Victorian villages, the company has been using around 1,000 tests every week since the start of the Omicron outbreak.
“If we get to this kind of thing in New Zealand… it’s math, isn’t it?” We have 5 million people, and you’ll want to test people regularly.
Chalmers said tests detected several cases of Covid-19 among staff and residents of Australian villages.