Covid tests being flown interstate for diagnosis as Sydney is swamped by surge in numbers

Tens of thousands of Covid nasal test swabs are being put on planes and flown from hotspots in New South Wales to be processed in Brisbane and other cities, with labs in Sydney still “drowning” from record testing turnouts that have led to result wait times of up to 10 days.

As daily testing numbers hover around 100,000 in NSW, a backlog in processing swabs in Sydney continues to force people into isolation, with Guardian Australia aware of an essential worker abandoning their vaccine appointment as they await a negative result.

Laverty Pathology, which runs drive-through Covid testing clinics, including one in Fairfield at the heart of Sydney’s outbreak, last week acknowledged a “huge surge” in testing had pushed turnaround times to 72 hours, however there have been reports of some Laverty patients waiting more than four days for a result.

Laverty’s testing turnaround appears to have worsened, with Guardian Australia aware of one resident tested at one of the company’s clinics in Surry Hills on 17 July still waiting for their result on Monday afternoon. More generally, there are consistent reports of four-day waits for results.

To cope with the influx of tests, Guardian Australia understands Laverty Pathology has begun taking swabs from its Covid clinics in Sydney and flying them to its sister pathology labs in other states.

Matthew, who is under lockdown in Wollongong, went to a drive-through Covid testing clinic run by Laverty on the afternoon of 21 July after developing a sore throat and cough. Despite being fully vaccinated, he got a test as a precaution against spreading the virus.

He isolated for about four days, until he received a negative result on the afternoon of 25 July, but noticed the results were sent by QML Pathology, a sister company of Laverty’s based in Brisbane.

Matthew said it was “annoying being stuck at home for a bit longer waiting” for test results from interstate.

A health worker involved in private pathology told Guardian Australia “tens of thousands” of tests were being put on planes and flown to labs in Brisbane and other cities as “Sydney is still drowning in tests each day”.

Healius, the pathology network that incorporates Laverty and sister companies in other states, did not respond to specific questions, saying they were “extremely busy” with the current situation. A spokesperson confirmed tests from Sydney were being sent interstate.

The spike in testing is in part due to the requirement for essential workers in areas of south-west Sydney to take Covid surveillance testing every 72 hours, with workers allowed to leave their respective LGAs for work without isolating while they wait for results.

Last week, some workers were turning up for tests having not yet received the results of a test taken three days earlier.

However not all essential workers are exempt from isolating while waiting for a result. Anyone in Sydney who gets a Covid test because they are symptomatic, or because they are a close contact, must still isolate until they return a negative result.

Besides Laverty pathology, testing times are varying between other private providers and hospital-run clinics from as little as a few hours to in excess of three days.

Amtul, a teacher who lives in north-west Sydney, got tested at a local clinic run by a separate private pathology company after developing symptoms.

She works at a school caring for children of essential workers, but had to isolate while waiting for her result. Despite having her first Covid vaccine appointment booked in coming days, she knew she had to “do the right thing and have the test”. Her husband had a test from the same clinic last month, and got his result in 12 hours. On the morning of the third day of waiting, she telephoned the pathology clinic and said she was an essential worker and had a Covid vaccine booked that afternoon, but was told they couldn’t guarantee a result in time.

Her result ultimately arrived around midnight that night. She called the Homebush vaccine hub to move her booking, and was told they could not delay it by a few days, but instead the appointment had to be cancelled.

Her August second-dose appointment became her first, and she had to book a second-dose appointment weeks after that.

“This is really, really ridiculous,” she said.

Last week, NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant acknowledged delays with “one of the private labs” that processes more than 10,000 tests a day, but noted providers had the capacity to expedite test results for anyone who announced they were a close contact.

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