This article was written by Lucy Bladen and originally published by the Canberra Times on 22nd November 2021
On the morning of August 12, whispers started to spread throughout Canberra that the city had recorded its first COVID-19 case in more than one year and a lockdown was imminent.
While most people prepared to bunker down and move their workplaces to their homes, health workers braced for the impending storm.
Testing centres were about to be inundated with demand, as thousands of Canberrans were identified as close contacts.
In the first week of the outbreak, daily tests averaged about 6700. On August 19, the biggest day of testing, there were 8800 tests taken across ACT government and private testing sites.
People reported waiting in queues for up to 10 hours to get their nostrils swabbed.
Capital Pathology went from administering about 300 tests a week to conducting almost 5000 in a single day during the first week of Canberra’s lockdown.
It was a short turnaround for the company, which had to dramatically ramp up its capacity overnight.
“We heard rumours on the Thursday that something was happening in Canberra and they were about to announce a positive case,” Capital Pathology client services manager Chris Ward said.
“And then we got together as a management group that afternoon and tried to work out what our plan of attack was.
“Chief Minister Barr came out and announced the lockdown and we knew that the next couple of days were going to be huge.”
Staff across the company were redeployed to help set up testing sites and conduct testing.
Capital Pathology chief executive Jason Gluch said having pre-registration for COVID-19 tests really helped smooth the process.
“One of the critical things for us to being able to ramp up which has been a problem around a lot of labs in Australia is the paperwork and data entry at the start,” Dr Gluch said.
“We had developed a pre-registration process where the patients could either put in all their details either the night before or while waiting in the queue.
“That just allowed them a really good work flow and it freed up a lot of our clerical front.”
In one day alone, 10 staff conducted 1800 tests at the Gold Creek Primary School pop-up centre.
Throughout the outbreak there were eight staff processing the results in the company’s laboratory but the average turnaround time for tests was 12 hours.
The organisation also assisted in pop-up clinics across the capital, including the Gold Creek testing centre, the Kambah drive-through site and a testing site in Erindale.
But the company has also set up further pop-up sites across the region.
“Throughout these last three months, we’ve opened little pop-up clinics at the request of ACT Health and NSW Health,” Mr Ward said.
“We’ve opened up drive through testing clinics for the general population in Goulburn, Yass, Braidwood, Cooma, Jindabyne, Bega, Pambula and Eden.”
Demand for testing has cooled, even as the ACT’s lockdown has lifted and further restrictions are eased.
The next challenge for pathologists it to ensure that people come forward for tests they may have abandoned during the COVID period.
Dr Gluch said there had been a 25 per cent decline in cancer diagnoses and he urged people to continue to come forward for their routine check-up.
Image: Capital Pathology chief executive Dr Jason Gluch, credit: Dion Georgopoulos