SMH: Daily COVID-19 testing for Sydney’s quarantine workers

All quarantine workers will soon undergo daily COVID testing as health authorities ramp up surveillance protocols across NSW’s massive quarantine operations.

From January 21, NSW Health will conduct rapid antigen testing (salivary tests) every day and weekly nasopharyngeal swabs on all patient transport workers and staff in Sydney’s special health accommodation – where COVID-positive patients and other travellers with serious health conditions stay.

By the end of February, all staff working across the quarantine program will be screened daily, NSW Health said.

It’s the same testing regimen security guards in Sydney’s police-managed quarantine hotels have been subjected to since December 14.

The move follows sustained pressure from epidemiologists and infectious diseases experts to implement mandatory daily rapid antigen screening for all personnel working in quarantine.

The quarantine system poses the greatest risk of future outbreaks, with nearly 111,500 international travellers landing at Sydney Airport since the process began last March.

In December, a patient transport worker was infected by COVID-positive returned travellers they were shuttling and transmitted the virus to another transport worker. One of these cases spawned the Berala cluster in western Sydney which numbers 18.

The source of the Avalon cluster and its 149 cases was imported from the US. Virus samples from the cluster came very close to matching a sample from a woman in hotel quarantine who had flown in from the US roughly two weeks before the outbreak was detected.

Public health consultant and epidemiologist Dr Henning Liljeqvist said rapid antigen testing performs as well as PCR (nasopharyngeal tests) in terms of their false positive rate and were approaching the rate of PCR’s false negative rate.

“Because they provide a result in 15 minutes and can be used outside of a lab, they are a good screening tool to be used in conjunction with gold standard PCR tests,” Dr Liljeqvist said.

“Using these rapid tests on asymptomatic people, we increase our ability to detect cases of COVID-19 that otherwise would be missed.”

There have been 111,466 international travellers and 12,548 domestic travellers quarantined in NSW in the nine months since the first traveller checked into hotel quarantine on March 29 up to the end of 2020.

Around 5000 travellers are quarantined at any one time, NSW Health says.

A total of 6342 international travellers have been quarantined in special health accommodation including 890 COVID-positive people. Some 306 travellers were transferred to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for assessment and treatment for a range of health conditions, including 17 with COVID.

Travellers with no symptoms are transferred to NSW-managed quarantine hotels by buses with the support of Transport NSW and the Australian Defence Force.

A NSW Health spokesperson said strict infection control and prevention practices – including personal protective equipment – are in place at all points, from the moment travellers are screened at the airport.

“All of the agencies involved in the NSW airport operations and quarantine program have extensive audit programs in place to ensure compliance. These are continually reviewed and enhanced,” a NSW Health statement read.

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