Rapid antigen tests should be freely available amid Omicron surge

The Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia (SHPA) has called for COVID-19 rapid antigen tests to be made freely available as supply increases over January, as stress on hospital capacity and strain on Hospital Pharmacists and their peers grows due to surging infections.

New, verified cases of COVID-19 reached over 35,000 in New South Wales today (32.2% of all PCR tests conducted) and nearly 18,000 in Victoria (29.5% of all tests) with positive rates also at record levels in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT as demand outstrips testing site capacity and results taking longer to be returned.

SHPA Chief Executive Kristin Michaels says increasing the accessibility of rapid antigen tests is both sound public health policy as well as an urgent weapon in the effort to limit hospitalisations and pressure on PCR testing capacity due to the highly contagious Omicron variant.

‘With the explosion in case numbers in every state and territory, bar Western Australia, the power and importance of rapid antigen tests as part of our public health response has also quickly increased.

‘If freely available to everyone at such a critical time, rapid test results can guide many more Australians in considering whether they truly require a PCR test or can follow direct and clear advice to self-manage symptoms at home and, most importantly, encourage as many as possible to reduce their movements and limit the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

‘At a minimum, rapid antigen tests should be prioritised for the most at-risk population groups, such as residential aged care facility residents and workers, hospital workers, the immunocompromised and Australians living with a disability. In recent days, SHPA has heard from various Hospital Pharmacists who have been unable to access a rapid antigen test along with their hospital colleagues.’

Ms Michaels says Hospital Pharmacists are crucial to Australia’s evolving response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Hospital Pharmacists continue to play an integral role in providing urgently needed third or booster vaccine doses through state and territory vaccination clinics, which have administered up to 50% of first and second shots in some jurisdictions, and are continuing to do so whilst these vaccination clinics regularly have staff stood down and furloughed due to contracting COVID-19 or being identified as a close contact.

‘While data on the now-dominant Omicron variant continues to emerge, there is always a correlation between COVID-19 and hospitalisations and after nearly two years of unyielding pressure our hospital workforce can, and should be protected, just as they protect us.’

[Date of release: Wednesday 5 January 2022]

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