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Long queues and closed clinics: Australians with positive rapid antigen tests are abandoning PCRs

People who test positive for Covid using rapid antigen testing will be turned down or give up getting a PCR test as New South Wales government warns the true number of Covid cases could be much higher than the 11,201 reported on Wednesday.

Waiting times for testing clinics have skyrocketed in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.

Guardian Australia has spoken to people who have developed Covid symptoms after coming into contact with a confirmed positive case, or who have a positive rapid antigen test, who have been trying to get a PCR test for several days but have been rejected.

Others were tested before Christmas, but are still waiting for their results.

Long queues result in waiting times of several hours. Some people had been turned away from a test site half an hour after it opened because it was overloaded. At others, people camped overnight to make sure they were at the top of the line.

Amy McNeilage and her mother both tested positive on a rapid antigen test earlier this week and were finally able to get a PCR test on Wednesday, after an hour’s drive from Sydney’s northwest to Lithgow.

McNeilage’s mother was sent away from three test sites on Tuesday – Castle Hill, Rouse Hill and Penrith. They checked the NSW Health website and saw that the Hawkesbury showgrounds would be open from 8am so got up early and joined the queue at 6:15am.

The website later marked it as closed. McNeilage and her partner need official confirmation of a PCR test to return to their home in Canberra and show their employers why they need time off. They will be quarantined in Sydney until they are allowed to travel.

“I’m just incredibly grateful to have been vaccinated because I felt quite unwell, more unwell than I expected from being double vaccinated,” McNeilage says. “I can’t imagine what shape I would be if I hadn’t been vaccinated.”

Officials in three states – Victoria, South Australia and NSW – have said testing capacity should be reserved for people who have symptoms or have returned a positive rapid antigen test (RAT).

The NSW government has blamed the rising test queues on “tourism tests”, mainly people traveling to Queensland who are required to show a negative PCR test.

NSW Health sent text messages to people who completed a PCR on Wednesday, warning that the wait for results would be 72 hours.

In a statement, it said it was taking steps to “limit testing that is not clinically urgent,” prioritizing people with Covid symptoms or a positive rapid antigen test, being a household contact or in a high-transmission location. have been.

‘The toilet paper of 2021’: Demand for rapid antigen testing is increasing as PCR testing becomes harder to get. Photo: Lukas Coch/AAP

Karen Lang spent Christmas at home with her partner, her adult son and daughter, and her daughter’s boyfriend, who was suffering from severe flu-like symptoms from what she believes is Covid. Her son was identified as a close contact and began to feel unwell on December 19. He tested positive on December 20, Lang and her daughter tested negative.

Lang and her daughter then began to feel unwell, so they went for another test on December 23. They still haven’t gotten any results. Lang’s partner, who was tested on December 24, also received no results. Her daughter’s boyfriend, who also tested on the 24th, got a negative test result back five days later.

Lang and her partner have booked a booster shot next week, but aren’t sure if they should keep the booking. If they’ve had Covid, they shouldn’t get the injection for six months. But if their long-delayed PCR test comes back negative, they should be given the chance. “So what do we do?”

Some, like Michael Banford, returned a positive rapid antigen test, looked at the PCR test queues, and decided not to get tested at all.

Banford started feeling a bit less early last week and returned two positive rapid antigen tests. It has now been 10 days since his symptoms first appeared and the 53-year-old, who had been double vaccinated with AstraZeneca, said he was feeling better. He will have a few more rapid antigen tests before leaving isolation.

The NSW health officer, Dr. Kerry Chant, said that people who only want a screening test should use a rapid antigen test and not a PCR test, but people who test positive for a rapid antigen test or who have symptoms will still get a PCR test.

She went on to say that the very high percentage of positive test results — currently more than 5% — meant the testing clinics “probably didn’t reach all cases.”

“So there’s probably more disease in the community than the numbers reflect.”

Test queues are slightly shorter in Victoria, with an average result time of about two days.

Laura Strehlau has taken her family for five PCR tests since Dec. 17, when her eight-year-old son was identified as a close contact. He tested positive, followed by her six-year-old and yesterday her four-year-old. So far Strehlau herself has not tested positive.

The longest they’ve waited for a test result is five days, the shortest eight hours — from a small testing clinic in Healesville. They’ve also screened with rapid antigen tests, but Strehlau says it was unfair to expect people to rely on the increasingly expensive tests.

“I’m a single mom, I’ve had to use my savings to buy them,” she says. “They’re hard to get and they’re expensive. It’s the toilet paper of 2021.”