Q&A: Everything you were wondering about Covid-19 testing

Noel Baker tackles some of the common questions about the Covid-19 testing procedure
Q&A: Everything you were wondering about Covid-19 testing

Noel Baker tackles some of the common questions about the Covid-19 testing procedure

The testing area for Covid-19 (Coronavirus) at Sir John Rogersons Quay, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The testing area for Covid-19 (Coronavirus) at Sir John Rogersons Quay, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Q. Where are we regarding testing at the moment?

A. The initial plan was to test as many as 5,000 people a day but issues emerged in relation to the capacity of the system to do that. In addition, a huge number of tests were done under the original criteria, but that was tightened last week. The results of many of those earlier tests have yet to be provided. Dr Cillian De Gascun, chair of the HSE’s Coronavirus Expert Advisory Group, said that 30,213 tests had been conducted but that some people faced a wait of up to 10 days for results.

Q. And there have also been issues with test centres and kit?

A. True. For example, the Páirc Uí Chaoimh test centre was closed on Sunday due to issues over sufficient testing kit, and other centres around the country have been similarly affected. Liz Canavan, from the Department of the Taoiseach, said that of Ireland’s 25-plus testing sites, some have not been able to open due to issues with procurement but added: “The HSE assures us that sufficient test centres are open to meet the current level of testing demand and an appropriate processing capacity.”

Q. But what about the delays in people getting their test results?

A. The Irish Examiner and other media are aware of tests done as far back as March 18 and where a result is awaited. On Tuesday the media was told that delays were seeing people waiting up to 10 days for a result. GPs are among those expressing concerns over the delays.

Q. But if you wait up to 14 days for a result, is there much point getting the result at all?

A. Unless someone is very ill, 14 days from the onset of symptoms, a person should be clear of the virus, if they ever had it, and if they were following the guidelines set down, they will have been self-isolating, thereby limiting their capacity to spread it. However, there could still be merit in getting a test result back, even at a late stage, that shows some had the virus, in terms of contact tracing. Plus, Dr De Gascun said since the changes in criteria for testing, the percentage of those testing positive for Covid-19 has risen from 6% to 15%, meaning they are testing the right people.

Q. Is everyone’s wait for a test the same?

A. No, the HSE is prioritising the testing of healthcare workers and in-patients in acute hospitals, and due to delays in getting some test results back has begun direct contact tracing of high-risk groups in advance of test results.

Q. Do the swabs have a limited shelf life?

A. Not particularly. It’s understood they can be stored for long periods. One issue is whether there is logic to retaining unread swabs beyond 14 days — as one doctor put it to the Irish Examiner — although again, a positive result, even weeks later, could still assist with contact tracing.

Q. So what’s the latest issue?

A. Global shortages of key materials in testing. Dr Cillian De Gascun said there were two components — the lysis buffer to activate the virus, which can be formulated by people including those in academia here. The material to extract the virus is more problematic as it is proprietary material and would take months to come up with an alternative extraction method. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: “There is a global shortage of testing kits, there’s a shortage of reagents, and we need the laboratory capacity.”

Q. How long is the shortfall likely to last?

A. Dr De Gascun said it could cause delays in the system of up to 10 days.

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