Australia recorded more than 11,000 new cases of COVID-19 for the first time on Tuesday amid concerns that almost 500 positive cases were circulating in the community for days after receiving false-negative test results.
As the federal government faces more calls to provide free rapid antigen tests, the Sydney pathology lab that prematurely told almost 1000 people that they had tested negative for COVID-19 confirmed on Tuesday that 486 had actually tested positive.
This was in addition to another group of more than 400 people infected with COVID-19 who were mistakenly told on Christmas Day that their result was negative.
SydPath apologised for the mistake and said it was due to a manual processing error.
“In order to contend with the major increase in volume of tests SydPath had recently moved from an automated system to a manual system to expedite the release of negative test results,” a spokesperson said.
“Unfortunately during this manual process a simple data processing error was made, which led to the wrong test results being released.
“We have reverted to our automated systems to ensure this type of error cannot happen again.”
Fear of undetected cases
It is feared the 486 undetected cases will have unwittingly spread the virus to other people after being told they had tested negative and did not need to isolate.
Case numbers in New South Wales dropped slightly from 6324 on Monday to 6062 on Tuesday.
But the state’s test positivity rate is tracking close to 6.5 per cent, up from 1.7 per cent a week ago.
Epidemiologists said this means the true number of cases will be much larger than the official number reported.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet continues to insist, however, the metric people should focus on is hospitalisations, which rose from 520 on Monday to 557 on Tuesday.
Mr Perrottet says the government is closely monitoring the state’s hospitals and will “tailor our settings where we need to”.
On December 23, surging case numbers forced the Premier to go against his commitment to “personal responsibility” by reimposing indoor mask mandates, compulsory QR code check-ins, and density limits on hospitality venues.
‘Tourism testing’ concerns
On Tuesday, he called on all state premiers to ease pressure on PCR testing clinics by allowing interstate travellers required to test negative before arrival to provide rapid antigen test results.
Hours earlier, Queensland removed the requirement for interstate arrivals to get tested on their fifth day in the state but kept in place the requirement for a pre-arrival test.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath announced the change to the day five tests on Tuesday, telling tourists in line at testing centres across the state they could immediately walk away.
Of the tens of thousands of travellers who have crossed the Queensland border, only 0.6 per cent have recorded positive results in the day five tests, Ms D’Ath said.
The about-face on day five tests came after NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard accused Queensland of “effectively perverting the purposes of pathology testing” as travellers clog up the already overwhelmed system.
Wait times in NSW have now blown out to the point that the test results are no longer relevant, Mr Hazzard said.
“They might have been negative on day one when they had their test, but they could well be positive on day four or day five when they cross the border,” he said.
ACT reopens testing centre
Meanwhile, the ACT had to reopen a fourth testing centre early to meet demand after three testing centres hit their initial capacity on Tuesday morning.
ACT police were called to a number of incidents as frustrations boiled over in testing queues.
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith says anecdotal evidence from testing teams suggests about half of the swabs are for travel purposes.
One would-be traveller told AAP she was turned away from a Port Macquarie testing clinic when staff saw her Queensland number plates despite arriving before the clinic opened and queuing for an hour and a half.
Federal government mulling free RATs
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg backed the use of rapid antigen tests for interstate travel to help ease queues and pressure at testing clinics.
“That’s a sensible balance recognising that people want some level of surety about their health status before they travel,” Mr Frydenberg told the ABC on Tuesday.
“But at the same time they want to avoid the long queues and long waiting times coming with the PCR tests.”
Mr Frydenberg said the government was “looking at its options” with regards to offering free rapid antigen tests, something NSW will do from next year.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Victoria saw a sharp uptick in COVID-19 infections, with 2738 cases and four deaths reported.
Queensland case numbers surged past 1000 for the first time, with 1158 reported.
South Australia hit a new daily record of 995 infections; ACT reported 252; Tasmania, 43; Western Australia, three (overseas); and the Northern Territory, 16.