Doctors swamped with patients amid more Covid-19 testing and onset of flu season

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

The onset of flu season as well as extra precautions around Covid-19 has caused a run on GPs and testing centres, and some DHBs are struggling to deliver test results on time.

Laboratories completed 9,174 tests yesterday, the highest number since testing began in New Zealand.

The Royal NZ College of GPs says the increase in demand is because of the onset of cold and flu season, with more people showing symptoms also associated with Covid-19, as well as heightened anxiety around recent issues at the border.

“I think the fact we've had the border problems with Covid-19 has really added substantially to the pressures and anxiety in the community,” Dr Bryan Betty said.

“We see flus coming through the door and general practices working at capacity, what's different this year is the fact we have patients coming in needing Covid swabs as well,”

The Hawke’s Bay DHB has seen a 60 per cent  increase in testing in the past week, and one local woman says it took four days to receive her result, which was negative.

She says she had to take those days off work while she waited, making things awkward with clients. Test results are usually supposed to come through within 48 hours.

“They're encouraging people to get tested, which I would think would mean we'd get our results back quite quickly, I think it's a deterrent if you're going to be waiting this long” she said.

Before she got her results, she says she was warned on the phone her results could take up to eight days to come through.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says that’s not quick enough.

“If we need to, we can move volumes of testing to other labs around the country, so we'll make sure they won’t have to wait that long” he said.

The Hawke’s Bay DHB’s recently acquired a machine that turns out test results in a matter of hours, which can also test for illnesses like flu.

The DHB says the machine is being used full time for Covid-19 tests, which are done in batches of 24 at a time, but the huge bump in testing numbers has meant there’s still a delay in results.

“This has led to extra shifts being put on so the machine can be used at full capacity, and weekend shifts have also been added to prevent any backlog from weekend testing,” a spokesperson said.

“Some tests though, beyond the machine capacity, are still being sent to Christchurch.”

Dr Bloomfield said he isn’t aware of issues with test result delays in other parts of the country.

“It’s something we will look into because we have seen this big increase in testing so that will be putting some pressure on the labs. We'll be wanting to see what other support they might need to get the results out to people as quickly as possible.” 

Dr Betty says despite the lack of community transmission in New Zealand, he wants to see community testing continue, and more support for GPs struggling with their workload.

“I want to make sure that getting Covid-tested in general practice and in the community remains free of charge to the patient. And it would be good to see extra resourcing in terms of staffing and support for general practice.”

Dr Bloomfield says there’s no plan to decrease community testing.

‘We're talking to all the DHBs and making sure there is a ready access for testing. We want them to maintain community testing capacity and also be able to stand up more capacity very quickly if needed.”

Employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk says things could get tricky in the workplace for those taking a few extra cautious days off, or those waiting for test results before going back to work.

“I think employers are going to come under pressure to offer more than five days sick leave in employment agreement negotiations. I don't think government should legislate for that. There’s already a significant cost on employers and some of them simply can't afford it.”

“If it's the employer telling the employee they can't come to work until they've got a clear test then my view it’s the employer who will have to pay over and above the statutory sick leave.”

“If the employee is saying 'I’m not comfortable' and the employer’s happy to have them there, the onus is on employee. It could come out of sick leave or it could be unpaid.”

“If it's the Ministry of Health saying you can't come in to work then it’s really tricky. In those circumstances I’d be looking to MBIE for some guidance.”