Massive surges in Covid-19 infections in Australia, fuelled by the Omicron variant, are placing huge pressures on the healthcare system, which is struggling to keep up with unprecedented demands for testing.
On Wednesday, New South Wales (NSW), the most populated state and the epicenter for the nation's current outbreaks, reported a record high of 35,054 new cases within the past 24 hours out of 108,844 tests.
Those cases were detected by PCR nasal swabs, administered for free throughout medical clinics and testing centres throughout the state, Xinhua news agency reported.
The besieged NSW facilities, like those in the neighbouring state of Victoria, have faltered throughout the nation's summer holiday period, with long queues causing people to wait for up to several hours to get tested.
Some overstretched laboratories in both states have had to temporarily close this week due to factors such as staffing shortages and the high positive test rates slowing down the pathology process.
More than 70 drive-through testing sites across NSW are to stay closed until next Monday, according to the NSW Health's website, while others are operating on limited hours.
The frenetic workload has also caused errors such as late last month when hundreds of infected people in NSW were initially wrongly told they had tested negative.
To ease such burdens, state and federal leaders are increasingly urging people to only get a PCR test if they have Covid symptoms or have been in close contact with an infected person.
The new message is for people to "take personal responsibility" by opting for rapid antigen tests (RATs) which can be done at home. The sudden reliance on these do-it-yourself kits, however, is causing its own challenges.
One of the main difficulties is that the RATs have become scarce, with many pharmacies selling out almost instantly. This, in turn, has led to reports of "price gouging" with retailers charging far in excess of the usual prices, which is about 15 to 20 Australian dollars (about 10 to $14.40) per test.
The fast-evolving situation is being investigated by the nation's "consumer watchdog", the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
"We are seeking information from suppliers about their costs and the current pricing of rapid antigen tests," ACCC Chair Rod Sims said on Tuesday.
"We won't be shy to name and shame suppliers and retailers we consider to be doing the wrong thing."
Union groups have also been quick to note the impact on people who have already suffered economically during the pandemic.
The Health Services Union (HSU) said state and federal governments needed to provide people with free RAT kits.
HSU national president Gerard Hayes said on Wednesday that the governments had allowed Omicron to "rip through the community" without having an adequate plan for testing.
"Now our health system is currently overwhelmed and private testing clinics are temporarily closing due to the backlog of samples to be processed," Hayes said.
"We cannot expect potentially Covid-positive patients to travel to multiple different shops to find RATs, and then 'pay through the nose' for them."
Meanwhile, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said RATs would soon be widely available.
Perrottet said he hoped his government could reach a "financial agreement" with its federal counterparts to "ensure rapid tests are available to anyone right across the state who needs one."
The issue of supply and funding of RATs was expected to be raised at a National Cabinet meeting due to be held later on Wednesday.
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