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Queensland Government under fire for delaying Indigenous coronavirus rapid testing

The Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) has hit out at the State Government for “stalling” on rapid coronavirus testing machines in remote Indigenous communities.

An Indigenous health advisor has told the ABC the impasse is putting remote communities at risk, particularly if travel restrictions are lifted.

Last month, the Federal Government announced it was investing $3.3 million in a point-of-care testing program for COVID-19 involving 80 remote communities Australia.

While some remote Indigenous communities currently wait up to 10 days for a COVID-19 test result, researchers have said the Xpert SARS-CoV-2 point-of-care tests (POCT), which were approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, could deliver an outcome within 45 minutes.

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The rollout is happening across New South Wales, Western Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia and Victoria, but Queensland has so far resisted approval.

The ABC has been told between 10 and 20 machines had been earmarked for Queensland, during initial discussions, but these were at risk of being allocated to other states and territories if the deadlock was not resolved soon.

Angela Young from QAIHC said the peak body was “disappointed” with the stalemate.

“Our communities want to receive care from our services because it is culturally safe and high quality,” she said.

“Our communities need access to point-of-care testing if there is any hope of keeping our people safe throughout this phase of the pandemic.”

The World Health Organization recently announced that tests could be administered in primary care settings without an enclosed biosafety cabinet.

James Ward, director of the University of Queensland’s Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19, said accessible testing was crucial for remote Indigenous communities.

“If there is a case, we need to test as many people as we can and regularly, but when you have significant delays in getting test results back that could significantly increase the size of an outbreak in a population,” Professor Ward said.

“The second thing we want these machines for is the relaxation of biosecurity laws.

“If we’re not able to early detect SARS-CoV-2 then it has the potential to spread further across communities and borders like syphilis did some years ago.

“We know not one Aboriginal person in a remote community has been diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2, which is incredible and we need to keep it that way.”

Dr Jason Agostino.
Jason Agostino says he believes the testing machines are safe to use.(Supplied: Jamie Kidston/ANU)

GP and epidemiologist Jason Agostino, the medical adviser for the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said not allowing the testing machines in Queensland was a “step backwards” that put communities at risk.

“The Public Health Laboratory Network, which is the main organisation in Australia which oversees safety, says if people have received the appropriate training and have personal protective equipment, the machines are safe to use,” he said.

“That’s the position that every other jurisdiction has taken.”

Dr Agostino said the potential for a health professional operating the machine to contract COVID-19 was minimal, compared to the risk posed by an infected person towards the community while they awaited results.

The township of Yarrabah, east of Cairns, is the largest Aboriginal community in Australia and was among the places in Queensland identified as a suitable point-of-care testing site.

Yarrabah GP Abby Harwood said she understood “everything had been ready to go for rollout for the week after next, but Queensland Health has vetoed it and said we can’t do it”.

A group of residents from Yarrabah stand on a road checkpoint with a Queensland police officer.
Yarrabah residents protesting at a police checkpoint limiting access to the town.(ABC News: Marian Faa)

“It’s quite disappointing,” Dr Harwood said.

“We’re in a situation at the moment where, should the Biosecurity Act lockdown be lifted, we won’t be able to prove that there is a case of COVID for at least 48 hours post-presentation for that initial case,” she said.

“That puts us really behind from the point of view of active contact tracing and minimising the spread in the community should there be a case that reaches [Yarrabah].”

Tensions have been high in Yarrabah, where residents last week objected to roadblocks limiting non-essential access to the town.

Dr Harwood said about 140 people in Yarrabah had been tested for COVID-19.

“A swab is taken by a nurse, that’s then packaged up, couriered into Cairns, data entered into the system, repackaged up, then it goes on a flight … and testing is done the next day,” Dr Harwood said.

“So there are at least seven or eight points of contacts with different individuals in that process.”

She believed point-of-care testing would provide a better safety net for the community in the event of restrictions being eased.

Point-of-care technology has previously been used in states including Queensland to detect ohhhually transmitted infections.

The Kirby Institute and Flinders University International Centre for Point-of-Care Testing have been tasked with managing the COVID-19 remote point-of-care testing program.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Health said the program was being rolled out in line with directions on safety from the “Public Health Laboratory Network and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee where all states and territories are represented”.

“Locations have been identified as potential sites for the POCT platforms in Queensland after discussions with officials from Queensland Health, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health services, and various health and hospital services, but these are yet to be finalised and confirmed,” the spokesperson said.

Queensland Health has been contacted for comment.


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