Australia

The coronavirus testing process explained: can you get tested privately in Australia?

Patients line up at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for coronavirus testing. Source: AAP

As the number of private clinics offering coronavirus testing to the wealthy in the United States and United Kingdom soar, SBS News asks health experts how testing works here in Australia.

When Melbourne woman Marcella Brassett came down with a fever, sore throat and cough around two weeks ago, she decided to get a coronavirus test.

While many clinics were refusing to test those who hadn’t been overseas or in contact with a positive COVID-19 case, she found a clinic in an inner-city suburb that was willing to do the test.

“They set up chairs outside in a bit of an alcove between buildings, outside their clinic. There was no one there, just me. You sat in the little laneway and called them, and I told them I was there,” she told SBS News.

“They said I didn’t need to get tested because I was highly, highly unlikely to have it. But I explained to them I was high risk because I had asthma and my partner has an autoimmune disease … They agreed to do the test,” she said.

South Australia Hospital staff
South Australia Hospital staff simulate drive-through coronavirus testing at a hospital in Adelaide.
AAP

Ms Brassett said the test wasn’t too uncomfortable and the whole process took around five minutes and cost $75. Several days later she got a phone call from the clinic with her results and was simply told they came back negative. 

She said she was offered a medical certificate with her negative result for her employer or to travel, but she didn't need one. 

How does the test work?

Professor William Rawlinson is the director of virology at South Eastern Sydney and Illawarra Health Service, one of the largest COVID-19 testing laboratories in New South Wales.

He said the test consists of a throat and nostril swab, which is usually taken at hospitals, GP clinics or by pathologists, before being sent to a laboratory.

Professor Rawlinson said the test involves putting the sample into a small bit of fluid and then into an extraction machine to remove the genome of the virus from the rest of the specimen.

That is then placed into thermal cyclers also known as a PCR machine to amplify the genome so it can be detected. The whole process of extracting and amplifying the genome takes about two to three hours.

How many people have been tested? 

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia continues to rise, the number of people getting tested is also on the up. 

As of Thursday, more than 178,000 tests had been conducted across Australia, according to the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly. 

The federal government on Wednesday announced expanded criteria for those wanting to get tested, meaning more Australians will soon be tested.

All aged and residential care staff, along with healthcare workers and those in geographical areas where there is a higher risk of community transmission, will be eligible for a test.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Wednesday that Australia continues to have one of the lowest positive test rates in the world.

“We have one of the broadest testing regimes in the world by per cent of population, but interestingly one of the lowest levels of positive tests and the highest levels of negative tests," he said.

"What that says is we're not just testing in big numbers, we are testing very broadly and scooping up a very high percentage of the population.”

Can I get tested privately?

Testing for COVID-19 has been widely available throughout Australia and the country hasn’t seen a repeat of the situation in the United States and the United Kingdom, where wealthy individuals have had greater access to testing kits.

This is because the Australian government listed COVID-19 testing on the Medicare Benefits Scheme early on in the pandemic, meaning the cost is covered by Medicare for anyone who meets the criteria.

Hospitals and some GP and pathology clinics do the testing but ask patients to call ahead in advance as most have separate waiting areas for those looking to have a test for COVID-19.

Drive-through testing clinics - where patients stay in their cars - are also available in some locations. 

It is possible to be tested at a private clinic in Australia but the same criteria for testing still has to be met and the test is also covered by Medicare. 

The Australian government’s Department of Health website on Thursday said those seeking a test would only get tested if a doctor decided they met one of the following criteria:

  • You have returned from overseas in the past 14 days and you develop respiratory illness with or without fever
  • You have been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days and you develop respiratory illness with or without fever
  • You have severe community-acquired pneumonia and there is no clear cause
  • You are a healthcare worker who works directly with patients and you have a respiratory illness and a fever 

How long should the results take? 

One London health clinic has been widely criticised in recent days for charging patients £375 (more than $750)  for a COVID-19 test.

The clinic defended the price saying it was reflective of the costs associated with the testing and also the paying of staff.

In Australia, Professor Rawlinson said the current COVID-19 test results only take a matter of hours to come through in a laboratory and patients should receive their results within two days of taking a test.

He is unsure as to why there have been reports of some patients waiting up to five days for test results.

“Most of the delay has been transport. Pathology has worked hard to get tests close to people because that’s the delay. It shouldn’t take more than two days unless there is significant travel involved,” he said.

SBS News has spoken to several people who waited up to four days for their negative test results to be returned to them.

An Italian doctors collects a coronavirus test swab in Bologna, Italy.
An Italian doctor collects a coronavirus test swab in Bologna, Italy.
ANSA

Professor Rawlinson also cautioned against the new so-called “rapid coronavirus tests” that are set to soon become available in Australia, that can supposedly detect the virus in a matter of minutes.

Mr Hunt on Tuesday announced approval for a number of these so-called "point of care" finger-prick tests to be rolled out in Australia in the coming weeks. 

“With the lateral flow finger-prick blood test they are looking at antibodies. They will tell if you’ve had it in the past, but might not necessarily identify if you have it currently,” Professor Rawlinson said.

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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