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Are pregnant women, elderly and people with disability prioritised in PCR testing queues?

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At 25 weeks pregnant, Brisbane woman Leilehua Fa'onevai waited in her car for eight hours to receive a PCR test. 

Her parents, who live with her, had tested positive to COVID-19 and she couldn't find rapid antigen tests (RATs) in shops or state-run clinics.

This week, three weeks after her last test, Mrs Fa'onevai braved the lines again, this time waiting four hours for another PCR test.

She arrived at a testing clinic in Boondall at 4:30am to make sure she, her husband and their young daughter didn't miss out if the clinic closed early.

Mrs Fa'onevai said while she used sanitising wipes and wore a mask, she worried about potentially catching the virus at the site's toilet.

She said she asked a traffic controller if there were any options to be prioritised and was told there were not.

"It was just ridiculous," she said.

"It's just not good enough."

The view from inside a car that shows a long queue of vehicles.
Mrs Fa'onevai is pregnant and says she was vomiting while she waited hours in a long COVID testing line.(Supplied: Leilehua Fa'onevai)

But Mrs Fa'onevai said she had no choice but to wait, with RATs virtually impossible to find.

"Getting a rapid antigen test is ridiculous," Mrs Fa'onevai said.

"I had a cousin ringing around 17 chemists ... couldn't find any." 

Mrs Fa'onevai said even if she could find the tests, "the expense in itself is absurd". 

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) President Dr Karen Price said situations like Mrs Fa'onevai's demonstrated the importance of RATs in protecting the community and health system, and called on the government to urgently expand access of free tests to all Australians.

"However, when there are supply constraints such as there are now, then free access should be targeted to clinical need and priority high-risk populations," Dr Price said.

"Priority populations include pregnant women, and those at high risk of disease due to underlying health conditions and obesity, people aged 65 and over, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and those with complex care needs such as people living with a disability or in residential aged care.

In relation to PCR tests, the RACGP said it would "welcome the introduction of mechanisms for testing sites to be able identify priority groups where demand results in significant waits in accessing testing".

Health departments across the country have emphasised the role RATs would play in avoiding long queues at PCR clinics, going forward.

Most states provide a limited number of free RATs from state-run sites, with the aim of reducing the pressure on PCR testing facilities and allow people to self-report their positive results.

With stocks of state-supplied tests vastly different around the country and little to no supplies in shops, PCR tests remain the only alternative for many people.

A young woman sitting in a wheelchair by a window is using a smartphone, the lighting in the room is shadowy and dark.
Accessing a PCR test can be more difficult for those with disabilities.(Shutterstock: Nana_studio)

'I'm disabled, I don't have a car'

Sixty-eight-year-old Adrie* has been isolating in her home in Gippsland, Victoria for over a week because she suspects she has COVID-19. 

But she said getting a PCR test right now wasn't an option with her health conditions.

"I have been unwell for the past week and I really should get tested but I'm disabled, I don't have a car and I don't know where to go," the Dutch-Australian said.

"And if a testing hub is open, you wait in line for three to four hours.

"I have a severe back problem ... I have trouble sitting that long and I have trouble standing that long.

Adrie plans to stay isolated until an online order of RATs arrives, but it's unclear how long that will be.

Are there priority lines in PCR queues?

As COVID-19 cases soar across the country, the disparity between how each state and territory is managing the increased demand for testing has become more pronounced.

The ABC asked each state and territory health department whether it had procedures in place to prioritise those in PCR queues who have particular health needs including the elderly, people with injuries or disability, people with young children and pregnant women.

Health worker swabs a person for a test for COVID-19 at drive-through testing clinic.
PCR testing is in high demand, but only some states have policies to prioritise pregnant women and people with disabilities.(ABC News: Stefan Lowe)

Western Australia Health said it used a triage process at its COVID clinics.

That included "prioritising pregnant women, families, those living with disability and the vulnerable up the queue so they wait for shorter times," a WA Health spokesperson said. 

"Current home collection service will still be provided for those who are unable to attend a clinic due to disability or as determined by Public Health."

NSW Health encouraged anyone who presented to a testing clinic and was vulnerable or required special attention to identify themselves to staff for assistance. 

Victoria's health department said staff at testing sites "may use their clinical judgement to prioritise people for testing for any reason".

"For example, the Call-to-Test service is for people who have COVID-19 symptoms and cannot leave home due to injury, mobility or other eligible reasons."

ACT Health did not respond.

The remaining states and territories didn't directly address the question, and instead explained how they planned to keep PCR wait times down through supplying free RATs to those eligible.

Queensland Health have limited number of RATs for eligible people and thanked the community for continuing to get tested despite wait times. 

"During periods of increased community risk, there can be long wait times at testing clinics which can create a barrier to access for people with a disability or people who have specific support requirements," QLD Health said. 

"If a person needs assistance when securing or undertaking a test, they are encouraged to call 134 COVID (13 42 68) to arrange any necessary accommodations."

Northern Territory Health said it had sufficient supply of RATs available for free from distribution points at Darwin, Katherine, Nhulunbuy, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.

"Those people who live in a remote area or need assistance with translations or online registration can call the COVID-19 Hotline on 1800 490 484," NT Health said.

South Australia increased its availability of RATs this week, opening the first of what is promised to be a number of sites where those who are eligible can pick up free tests. 

Additionally, SA has had an online booking system in place for PCR testing since July, which a spokesperson said had helped to keep wait times down.

Tasmania has a similar PCR booking system and RAT pick-up sites in place. 

A professional portrait of a woman smiling.
Ms Dent says long queues for PCR tests can be incredibly difficult for young children and their parents.(Supplied: Georgie Dent)
Source: ABC

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