154 new COVID cases as testing rules eased for interstate arrivals

UPDATED | South Australia has recorded 154 new COVID cases today, as the Premier apologised for wait times of up to nine hours at testing clinics and announced that interstate visitors would no longer have to be swabbed on arrival to reduce demand on the overburdened system.

Dec 21, 2021, updated Dec 21, 2021
Queueing at the Victoria Park testing site on Tuesday morning. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Queueing at the Victoria Park testing site on Tuesday morning. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Authorities are also considering bringing forward the availability of booster vaccinations to better protect people against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier a short time ago announced the record number of daily cases and said the bulk of them – 134 – were locally-acquired.

She said interstate arrivals made up only two per cent of new cases and overseas visitors just one per cent, so it made sense to drop testing requirements for interstate arrivals and focus on locals frustrated with long queues and wait times.

“We are seeing more cases within our own community and so it absolutely makes sense to make that decision to not require interstate travellers to get tested,” Spurrier said.

“This will mean we have absolutely a focus on symptomatic people in our state.

“A pandemic evolves very quickly.”

SA Health also this afternoon said six aged care residents have tested positive for COVID-19, all from one facility.

“Of those residents, one is being cared for in hospital and the remaining five are receiving specialised care at the facility with the support of SA Health,” SA Health said in a statement.

A total of 2097 close contacts across the state are in quarantine, along with 485 positive cases in home quarantine and 47 in a medi-hotel.

Spurrier also revealed two more people who attended the Ashes Test at Adelaide Oval had now tested positive, in addition to the overseas broadcasters who were infected.

She said SA Health was currently “working through” contact tracing for those cases.

She also said wastewater testing had detected strong levels at Bordertown and urged anyone there with symptoms to get tested.

When asked about reports of two midwives testing positive at the Lyell McEwin Hospital, Spurrier said authorities had not listed it as an exposure site because all relevant people had been contacted.

Acknowledging rising levels of concern and risk, she urged South Australians to plan an outdoor Christmas gathering and said she personally wouldn’t allow unvaccinated guests.

Premier Steven Marshall apologised “for the lengthy delays some people have experienced” at testing sites and said relief was on the way.

“We just don’t think it’s appropriate for people to have to sit in their cars for hours and hours and hours,” he told reporters.

“I think we’ll see those lines massively reduce today.

“We now have received advice from SA Pathology and SA Health that we can reduce testing requirements for people coming from interstate who do not have symptoms.”

Marshall said people arriving from New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT would no longer need to have a test on arrival unless they had symptoms.

“We’d much rather keep that capacity now for South Australians with symptoms,” he said.

He said they will still have to have a test within 72 hours before they arrive.

Marshall also said that at this stage they will still be required to test on day six of their arrival into SA – but Spurrier later clarified that was not the case.

It’s unclear whether they still have to test on day 13 – SA Health is expected to clarify requirements this afternoon.

Just under 18,000 COVID tests were conducted in South Australia on Monday, down from more than 20,000 on Sunday.

Marshall urged locals to make a booking for a test, rather than just turn up, to reduce wait times.

Testing chaos continued across Adelaide overnight and this morning with reports of people waiting up to nine hours at Victoria Park and others being turned away from other overburdened sites around Adelaide.

Staff at Adelaide Airport are telling arrivals to find another site for testing because the line at the airport is 3 hours long and they shut in 2.5 hours. They say you run the risk of queuing for hours only to be turned away at closing time.

— Chloe Bouras (@ChloeBouras) December 20, 2021

Cars were filmed this morning lined up in a huge slow-moving queue for the Elizabeth testing site.

There were reports of people arriving at Adelaide Airport last night being told to find another testing site because the line there was too long and they ran the risk of being turned away at closing time.

SA Health this morning acknowledged the huge waits in a facebook post, saying “staff numbers are being increased and opening hours extended to accommodate the surge in demand”.

“If you do not have a booking at the Ridgehaven, Elizabeth South, Port Adelaide or Repat testing clinics, please attend another site that does not use a booking system,” the post said.

It also listed wait times at its clinics as at 8.30am, including eight hours at Victoria Park and six hours at Ridgehaven.

“Be prepared for your visit by bringing water and snacks. If you are attending a walk-in site, bring sun protection (sunscreen, hat, umbrella) and a chair,” the post says.

SA Health announced a record 105 new cases yesterday, following 80 the previous day, yet only updated its exposure site list late yesterday with just six new locations listed.

South Australians have begun taking contact tracing into their own hands, launching a facebook group called SA Community Known Exposure Sites, which already has more than 17,000 members.

One woman posted last night saying she and 12 others had tested positive to COVID after attending the Cry Baby bar in the city last Wednesday December 15.

“13 known cases (including myself) that have tested positive, all of which were at cry baby on the night of wednesday 15th,” she posted.

“I gave my contact tracing interview yesterday, none of those places have been updated onto the exposure listings.

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“Many west end hospitality venues have been exposure sites over the last week, almost none of them listed either.

“If you or anyone you know has been out and about celebrating, please monitor for symptoms and get tested if anything doesn’t feel right.

“I only got tested because a friend of mine tested positive, i was essentially asymptomatic, i would still be out in the community otherwise, so am very thankful for word of mouth from them.”

Cry Baby is listed as an exposure site on SA Health’s website, for a period from Monday night last week to early Tuesday morning.

InDaily has attempted to contact the woman and has also asked SA Health about her claims.

Meanwhile, SA Health is now advertising to hire more contact tracers.

“SA Heath is recruiting additional staff to work in our COVID-19 contact tracing and outbreak management teams,” the ad states.

“You will be a vital part of our team as we roll out South Australia’s COVID-Ready Plan.”

Spurrier yesterday blamed a labour shortage for difficulties in finding enough staff.

Opposition health spokesman Chris Picton said “it is less than a month after borders opened and it is clear there simply are not enough contact tracers or testing capacity to keep up”.

“It needs an explanation how a record two-day 185 new cases have led to the identification of only 6 new exposure sites,” he said.

“Particularly when people are now taking matters into their own hands to share exposure sites.

“We have consistently seen delays of a week or more in the identification of exposure sites. This speaks to a lack of resources from the government – who are still trying to find staff to work in contact tracing despite the assurances made.”

Ahead of this morning’s Transition Committee meeting, Police Commissioner and state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens conceded the long waits and huge queues were a “disincentive” to people getting tested.

He said he had spoken to SA Health chief executive Chris McGowan about additional measures to relieve pressure and that authorities were considering calling in the Australian Defence Force “depending on whether they can provide the sort of resources that actually make a difference”.

However, at a later press conference, Marshall said the ADF would not be called upon to help at testing sites.

Marshall said National Cabinet was meeting tomorrow and would considering bringing forward booster vaccinations – to four months after a second dose – to better protect people.

People are now eligible for a booster five months after their second shot.

Marshall said he hoped rapid antigen tests would soon be available to the general public in SA but only for “surveillance” testing.

He said the tests would “not suitable for people who have symptoms”.

Spurrier said close contacts of cases still had to be tested at this stage but flagged that might change in the coming weeks.

“We really need to have people who have symptoms in our state able to access the testing as soon as they possibly can,” she said.

Spurrier responded to delays in contact tracing and listing exposure sites, saying authorities would try to improve the system but that the focus now was on high-risk sites.

“The real focus now is on saving lives and making sure we therefore focus on the most vulnerable people in the community,” she said.

She said that included focusing on cases who were not vaccinated, as well as older people and those with chronic health problems.

In a statement, SA Health said: “As we transition to living with COVID-19 in our state, our Communicable Disease Control Branch (CDCB) will continue to focus resources and efforts on containing chains of transmission as quickly as possible but will now be prioritising high risk, vulnerable close contacts and settings where there are people at the highest risk of poor health outcomes.”

“These groups include older people, pregnant women, or those with chronic health conditions and locations such as aged care facilities, hospitals, correctional services, disability services,” the statement said.

“Exposure locations will still be listed on our site as deemed necessary however the priority will be these high-risk groups and settings. CDCB will continue to contact other businesses by email, phone or voice message in order or priority.”

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