Strict border control and increased testing capacity for COVID-19 in NT
The Northern Territory (NT) is currently the only jurisdiction in Australia without any diagnosed community transmission of COVID-19. We spoke to A/Prof Rob Baird, Director of Pathology Infectious/Diseases Physician at Territory Pathology to learn more about how the NT has been dealing with the pandemic, and why border control has been paramount to controlling the outbreak.
“There has been widespread planning for any potential outbreaks of COVID-19 in remote and urban communities in the NT. This planning extends throughout the hospital system and pathology services, in particular, in capacity building and ensuring that surge testing can be done locally when it is required. Our remote communities are vulnerable, and home isolation and quarantine facilities are logistically difficult on country. The cornerstone of the response in the NT has therefore been to reduce the risk of introduction of cases,” said A/Prof Baird.
Since the start of the outbreak, the NT has maintained strict border controls. Currently, all travellers arriving into the NT from or through a declared hotspot must undertake 14 days of mandatory supervised quarantine which comes at a personal cost of $2,500.
States and Territories may introduce additional measures, such as enhanced testing, to control community transmission of infection if it occurs. It may be important that these additional measures are localised to a town, region, or larger geographical area depending on the circumstances.
“The NT receives a lot of international arrivals, including returned cruise ship passengers and over 1,000 marines, which means a relatively large amount of entry and exit testing has taken place in addition to strict quarantine measures. In the NT, the logistics of safely evacuating remote communities with COVID-19, in large numbers, in PPE would be extremely difficult and would require considerable resources at both a federal and state level. Border control has therefore been absolutely critical for managing and preventing COVID-19 in the NT.
“As we only have one large pathology laboratory which can perform higher volume testing in the NT, there has been a lot of planning to ensure adequate reagent supplies and testing equipment, both of which have been affected by workforce redundancy and altered transport schedules. Our entire health system is quite small in the NT, so split shifts were introduced for health care workers to avoid the entire workforce being put out of action due to the need for quarantine measures.”
“Generally, of all the continuing problems being encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have not been many with the overall Australian pathology response. Unlike some countries, reliable assays and rapid ramp up testing capacity were quickly available in Australia. There was excellent leadership nationally, and information from laboratory network groups and professional bodies was also accessible.
So far in the NT, we have performed over 32,000 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, with capacity to go up to 1,000 per day for a surge, which is similar to the capacity of other jurisdictions, per capita. Currently, over one tenth of the entire NT population has been tested which is a fantastic achievement,” said A/Prof Baird.