NSW has recorded a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases, with almost twice as many people being confirmed with the virus, as people with no symptoms and those looking to travel interstate are directed away from testing queues.
The state reported 11,201 cases on Wednesday, compared with 6062 on Tuesday.
Results from 157,758 tests were returned in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday, an increase of more than 60,000 tests over the previous 24-hour period.
NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant says the high number of tests will fluctuate in coming days as a backlog of test results are returned.
She advised people to limit their mobility around the community and allow PCR tests to be freed up for people who are actually experiencing symptoms or who have been advised by authorities to get tested.
There are 625 people in hospital with the virus, 61 of them in intensive care, with 23 on ventilators.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet says it’s “incredibly pleasing” that the state still has strong capacity in hospitals and intensive care units, thanks to a high vaccination rate, and boosters for those eligible.
“The overwhelming majority of those in ICU are unvaccinated,” Mr Perrottet says.
He says he’s looking forward to discussions to change close contact definitions and isolation periods at a national cabinet meeting on Thursday with the hope of securing a national approach.
Ensuring people who can’t easily afford rapid antigen test kits can still access them will also be a focus of the meeting, the Premier says.
The state has 50 million rapid antigen tests on the way, after ordering another 30 million on Wednesday.
NSW also announced a further three deaths on Wednesday.
Two women, one in their 90s and another in their 70s who both became infected at the Warabrook Aged Care facility in Newcastle have died.
A man in his 80s from Sydney’s inner west died at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
All three were vaccinated but had underlying health conditions.
NSW Health says the state’s testing capacity “is currently under enormous pressure”, and those looking to receive a negative test before travelling to Queensland are now being told not to take up space in the queue.
NSW Health says they’re unlikely to receive their results within 72 hours and by the time they do they will no longer be required.
Queensland will accept rapid antigen tests instead of PCR tests for travellers from interstate hotspots from January 1.
“There are many people who are lining up in those queues who do not need to be there and we are doing everything that we can to increase capacity and put downward pressure on those queues,” Mr Perrottet says.
Another reason for delays in results is because there are so many cases being detected that laboratories can no longer use time-saving techniques that allowed them to test multiple samples at once.
Combining and simultaneously testing multiple samples at a time “has worked really well over the last year and a half or so”, NSW Health Pathology Professor Dominic Dwyer says, but pooled samples need to be individually retested if a positive is recorded.
“The ability to pool is limited by how common the disease is in the community, and at the moment with this Omicron surge, the numbers are too high to do pooling in a cost effective and rapid manner,” Prof Dwyer says.
The Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia president Lawrie Bott says laboratories are dealing with a previously unimaginable level of testing.
The equipment and expertise of the profession are not easily or quickly scaled up, and priority needs to go to patients who are unwell.
While rapid antigen tests can be useful, “PCR testing remains the most accurate test for COVID-19 and the only test that public health authorities can rely upon for the diagnosis of COVID-19 infection,” Dr Bott says.