But last week it was the testing team’s time to shine, stunning the country with unprecedented levels of testing as Sydneysiders – particularly on the beaches – rushed to do everything possible to shut off this latest coronavirus outbreak.
The week started off strong: 39,500 tests on Sunday (usually a quieter day), a record 44,500 on Monday and another 42,000 on Tuesday. Officials keep track in real time, and by Wednesday morning Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant offered some forward sizzle of what was brewing.
“I’m not going to release these numbers but … I think you’re going to be stunned by the level of testing that we report today,” she told reporters towards the end of the 11am press briefing.
When Wednesday’s total was tabulated after 8pm that night, it was a shock: 60,000 tests in one day, smashing the record. Thursday’s was higher again, just shy of 70,000. Nearly 40,000 people got a test on Christmas Day. It meant 300,000 people were tested in NSW in just six days, with the number of new cases found each day remaining in single digits since Monday.
On Sunday, NSW is almost certain to surpass 4 million COVID-19 tests since the pandemic began.
“When you have to prioritise something, it’s amazing what we’re capable of doing,” says Ms Pearce, a trained nurse who has worked in the health system for 30 years. “We’re used to surging and responding and going above and beyond.”
Ms Pearce says the rapid scaling up of testing was enabled by a huge degree of co-operation. Local councils have to approve and help set up a testing marquee. Council staff are often seen walking down the queues of people, handing out water bottles and muesli bars. Emergency operations teams have to manage logistics, traffic and other disruptions.
With the focus on the beaches, nurses were dispatched from Sydney’s seven other metropolitan health districts to help their northern Sydney colleagues. Pearce says the public pathology team in NSW is large compared to other states, but they also work with a huge number of nurses from the private sector. Chances are if you went to a pop-up clinic, it was run by a private provider such as Laverty or Douglass Hanly Moir.
The nurses go where they are needed most, suspending other work and putting in overtime. “They surge the workforce to be able to do it,” Ms Pearce says. “It’s not to suggest we have people sitting around waiting for this workload. Our view is we just need to throw everything we’ve got at it.”
Ms Pearce can’t say with certainty how many nurses were involved in taking the 300,000 tests – “hundreds and hundreds”, she estimates. In a crisis, no one has time for a headcount.
NSW Health also had to ramp up the processing of test results. This involved mobilising couriers to move tests to whichever laboratory had space. “If one lab is at capacity in terms of the number of tests it can do, we can transfer specimens to another lab in the city or the Hunter or the Central Coast and move those samples around,” Ms Pearce says.
That meant that despite the record testing levels, most people still waited no longer than 24 hours to receive their negative result. This was especially important for people awaiting the all-clear so they could attend Christmas events with friends and loved ones.
“We keep our eye on that turnaround time,” Ms Pearce says. “Some people may have waited a little longer. By and large the bulk have had their results pretty quickly.”
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Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.