The government is struggling to meet its existing obligations to test border workers, allegedly thanks to computer systems “held together by duct tape.”
There have been growing calls for border workers to be tested more than once a week in response to the more infectious Delta strain of Covid-19. Yet a recent move towards saliva testing has highlighted a significant computer glitch preventing more frequent testing.
A much-anticipated plan to speed up Covid-19 testing is expected to be announced on Thursday, as part of a review led by David Murdoch, chairman of the Department of Health’s Covid-19 testing technical advisory group.
Yale school public health researcher Anne Wyllie said all PCR tests, whether nasal swabs or saliva tests, should be done at least twice a week by border workers to detect cases early, before they become infectious.
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The advantage of the saliva PCR test over the rapid antigen test is that it can detect Covid-19 before people become contagious, allowing health authorities to isolate an infected border worker before they pass the virus on. virus to someone else. You lose this advantage if your test is not run frequently enough.
However, it is understood that the infrastructure that underlies cross-border worker testing systems is already unable to handle an increased frequency of testing.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins explained that saliva testing will be offered as part of routine border testing from June.
The issue was exposed during the rollout of saliva testing, as workers were to be tested twice a week.
The hodge-podge of computer systems and other delays in the testing regime meant the deadline for a cross-border worker’s next saliva test could pass before they were asked to take the next one.
A source close to the problem said the entire system was “maintained by Sellotape and should have been replaced 15 years ago”.
At the heart of these problems is an aging database system called EpiSurv. The current version of it was created in 2007 within the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, but governments on both sides have not invested much in updating it.
The entire testing regime requires test results to be put into EpiSurv, delaying the time before a new ‘event’ is generated requiring border workers to be retested.
These delays have not been a problem for border worker testing in the past, as nasal swab tests were performed once a week.
However, the saliva tests were approved for “surveillance” testing, which meant they had to be done twice a week.
A controversial border saliva test contract signed by the Department of Health exacerbated some of these IT problems, as it required the supplier to send samples to the lab 24 hours after they were dropped off for collection, then gave them 24 hours to return a test result.
This meant that a testing company could deliver results up to 48 hours after a worker had submitted their test, and not be in breach of contract.
All of these issues can cause a delay of several days between when a cross-border worker takes their first saliva test and when they are asked to take the next. This is not a problem if their next test is not supposed to be taken until seven days after the last one, but if they are to be tested two days after their first test.
Cross-border workers have a saliva test twice a week, a frequency that effectively means once every two or three working days.
Wyllie said workers should be tested more than once every seven days, even if they have been tested with a nasal swab.
A spokeswoman for the Asia Pacific Healthcare Group, which holds the health ministry’s border worker saliva test contract, said she was not aware of any issues with the computer systems at the end of the ministry.
The spokesperson said the delays described were not “our interpretation” of how the current system works.
“From our perspective, we get the information from the Ministry of Health systems, then the worker does the saliva sample, then we send messages with the collection, drop the details, then the results. “
She said the contractual collection times of 24 hours, followed by 24 hours to get samples to the lab, were a maximum and that the APHG was currently well below those.
The Health Ministry was approached on Monday to comment on the issues and acknowledged the request, but did not provide any statement or explanation prior to the publication.
Last month, Wyllie was supported by IGENZ clinical microbiologist Arthur Morris who called for tests to better reflect the infectious nature of the virus. IGENZ is engaged by saliva testing provider Rako Science.
In a blog post published last week, Morris argued that New Zealand should test high-risk groups several times a week, but we aren’t doing it because we don’t think we can get people to agree to it. frequent nasal swab tests.
Morris argued that a better testing regimen should include a wider use of saliva, a test that could be done more frequently without causing the same level of discomfort as a nasal swab.
“The biology of [Covid-19] means those who need frequent workplace testing should be tested every other day,
“Saliva is the sample that makes this testing frequency acceptable to these important workgroups.”