Covid 19 coronavirus: Analysis – Everyone wants saliva testing in MIQ, so why are we still waiting?

ANALYSIS:

The appetite for routine saliva testing in managed isolation and quarantine facilities is at an all-time high.

The Government, the company charged with facilitating MIQ saliva testing and the workers themselves are all keen to see this form of testing introduced as another defence at our border.

And yet, we are nowhere close to implementing a robust testing process and all those involved are scratching their heads as to why.

It took Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins blaming reluctant MIQ staff this week to shine the spotlight on why we are dragging our feet on saliva testing.

He claimed not being able to eat and smoke beforehand had put some workers off the testing method.

That may be what he’s heard, but after contacting three of the five major unions with members working in MIQ, the NZ Herald found almost no negative feedback had been recorded about saliva testing from MIQ staff.

In fact, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive as saliva testing offered a painless alternative to the invasive nasopharyngeal swabs.

So if it’s not MIQ staff, who is stopping progress on saliva testing?

In May, Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG) was awarded a $50 million Ministry of Health contract to facilitate and process up to 20,000 saliva tests of MIQ staff per week.

Speaking exclusively to the Herald this week, APHG general manager Chris Davey outlined how the company’s Auckland lab – which had processed more than 500,000 Covid-19 tests to date – was champing at the bit to start testing saliva.

She eagerly described the step-by-step process by which MIQ workers could deposit their saliva into a tube, link it to their NHI (National Health Index) number and leave it for collection.

On Monday, Davey said the programme was expected to be operational within weeks. Later, Hipkins contradicted her by saying he hoped saliva testing would be ramped up by September.

In truth, APHG is no closer to implementing saliva testing in MIQ than it was months ago and its staff have no idea why.

After months of trials and a recent prototype programme in Christchurch, the Ministry of Health reportedly have no set guidelines on whether saliva testing will impact the frequency of nasal swabs or how often saliva samples will be taken.

Meanwhile, the company with every capacity to fulfil its $50m contract is twiddling its thumbs, and MIQ workers are likely becoming further disenfranchised with a testing regime that already leaves them bleeding and with sinus infections.

You only have to look at how many saliva tests have been done to date for an indication of how contrary Hipkins’ comments are to the Government’s apparent desire for saliva testing.

From January to July, just 394 voluntary tests were completed across three MIQ facilities – with Auckland’s Jet Park accounting for 345 of them.

Looking at this, it’s easy to blame staff. After all, they don’t have 1pm press conferences to make their voices heard.

What’s not easy – and what the Government refuses to do – is accept it has ignored the calls for saliva testing since September last year and allow APHG to roll out a programme which is ready to go.

The frustrations felt by all involved echoes the chronic problem with our mental health system, which can seemingly make little use of billions of dollars of investment when people are banging down the door for help.

Even though it’s true, blaming an intangible, snail-paced Government machine feels like a cop-out.

If you want it done, get it done. In March last year, our health system showed how fast the Government can act under pressure, so let’s prove we didn’t forget all the hard lessons we had to learn.


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