Authorities are bracing for a surge in coronavirus infections after roughly 1400 people were incorrectly sent negative COVID-19 test results in the lead up to Christmas.
As New South Wales confirmed its first death linked to the Omicron variant and national COVID cases topped 10,000 on Monday, the pathology laboratory at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney revealed it had mistakenly sent negative test results to 995 people when their results had yet to be determined.
The 995 ‘premature’ tests were in addition to the more than 400 false-negative results that the same pathology lab sent to people infected with COVID-19 on Saturday evening.
In a statement released on Monday, SydPath said the emergency response team set up to investigate the cause of the first mistake had identified the second mistake and had since advised all 995 people of the error.
The laboratory said accurate test results would be sent to the 995 affected people by Monday evening.
“Once again, we are sincerely sorry for this error and acknowledge the significant impact it has had on those involved,” SyPath said in a statement.
“We have identified what occurred and can confirm it was related to a specific human error. SydPath have put procedures in place to ensure this cannot happen again.”
Testing clinics close in NSW
The second testing blunder in as many days comes as demand for testing continues to outstrip capacity, with the number of close COVID contacts surging and Australians still required to provide a negative PCR test before crossing some state borders.
In NSW, health authorities have asked people to ease pressure on the testing system by only seeking a PCR test if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have been directed to get tested by NSW Health or the Department of Education.
On Monday, NSW Police said on Facebook that a number of testing sites in Sydney had been forced to close before midday due to “overwhelming demand”.
It said the Cessnock Showground testing clinic on Mount View Road closed at 11am, while the Leumeah drive-through testing clinic on Plough Inn Road had closed even earlier.
And people also reported being turned away by numerous other testing sites across the city.
The testing chaos came as NSW Health confirmed a man in his 80s had died in what is believed to be the state’s first death related to the Omicron variant.
The man caught the virus at the Uniting Lilian Wells aged-care facility at North Parramatta in western Sydney, where he was a resident.
He was fully vaccinated but had underlying health conditions.
National COVID cases top 10,000
Despite clinics returning fewer test results over the public holidays, national daily cases soared to a record-high 10,186 on Monday, with the total number of active cases rising to 73,672.
NSW reported 6324 new cases; Victoria reported 1999; Queensland, 784; South Australia, 842; the ACT, 189; Western Australia, 1; the Northern Territory, 12; and Tasmania, 35.
Across the country, meanwhile, more than 1000 people are in hospital with COVID-19, including 520 people in NSW and 368 in Victoria.
University of South Australia epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman said cases in NSW were doubling every five-and-a-half days.
The surging case numbers also mean thousands of people will have been forced into isolation in recent days, wreaking havoc for businesses managing their workforce and families reuniting over the holidays.
COVID rules tightened
WA has extended its mask mandate and restrictions on hospitality venues until January 4, with Premier Mark McGowan noting the announcement would disappoint some.
Nightclubs will be closed for New Year’s Eve, as will major music festivals.
Mr McGowan said Western Australians would still be able to enter the new year with family and friends.
“This gives us the best chance to potentially eliminate this outbreak in our community and ensure we can continue to have a relatively normal and safe holiday period,” he said.
Elsewhere, NSW and the ACT have moved to curb testing for people who are not close contacts or do not have symptoms to try and take pressure off testing facilities.
The ACT also eased testing requirements for close contacts in isolation.
Queensland is reviewing whether some people will be able to take rapid antigen tests, instead of a PCR, to help ease demand.
But hundreds of cars were still lined up at one north Brisbane testing site on Monday just before its closing.
Massive testing queues
Of the people AAP spoke to, about half were from interstate and were required to take a PCR test.
Car batteries were going flat in the line and people, including the elderly, were forced to wait for hours in hot vehicles.
SA is now asking interstate visitors to take a rapid antigen test upon arrival instead of a PCR test.
Labor’s health spokesman, Mark Butler, called for a testing regime that includes accessible and affordable rapid antigen tests to help take the pressure off testing facilities.
“With a daily toll of thousands and thousands of COVID cases and with our PCR testing systems completely overwhelmed, we need the federal government to put in place a rapid testing regime,” he said.
Further restrictions came into effect in NSW and SA on Monday to help slow increasing case numbers.
In NSW, hospitality venues have gone back to the one person per two-square metre rule and compulsory use of QR code check-ins.
Meanwhile, new density limits and reductions in the number of people allowed at family gatherings have come into force in SA.