Aged care provider Whiddon is rolling out rapid antigen testing to a second Sydney home and monitoring the situation in Queensland following a successful trial at its facility in the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney’s south-west.

New South Wales reported 262 new cases of COVID-19 from community transmission on 5 August along with 3,655 locally-acquired active cases while Queensland reported 10 new community-acquired cases the following day among 89 active locally-acquired cases on the same day.

As previously reported,  Whiddon Easton Park in Glenfield in south-western Sydney, which has 800 employees and 500 residents, commenced a two week trial of rapid antigen testing in mid-July to screen staff at the beginning of every shift and other visitors for COVID-19.

The Glenfield home conducted 5,180 rapid COVID tests during the trial from 13-27 July, all of which returned a negative result in a turnaround of less than 15 minutes. The results also correlated with 40 on-site PCR tests conducted in line with NSW guidelines for staff living in certain high-risk areas, Whiddon reported.

Chris Mamarelis

Whiddon CEO Chris Mamarelis said the initiative has been extended at Glenfield and to Hornsby and potentially elsewhere because of the success of the trial and the level of community transmission.

“It’s still currently deployed [at Glenfield]. We will keep the testing process operational until we see community transmission reduced.

“We’ve extended to our Hornsby home and we’re keeping an eye on our home in Beaudesert in south-east Queensland. If the situation deteriorates there, we will probably implement it in Queensland as well,” Mr Mamarelis told Australian Ageing Agenda.

The initiative received encouraging feedback from staff, residents and family members, according to Whiddon’s post-trial survey, which found:

  • 90 per cent of employees agreed the combination of rapid antigen testing and on-site vaccination made it more likely they would attend work
  • 92 per cent of surveyed family members and 88 per cent of surveyed residents agreed rapid antigen testing reassured them that Whiddon was protecting residents and staff members.

Just a few weeks ago, the employee vaccination rate at the home was 15 per cent compared to around 60 per cent now after bringing an in-reach vaccination team in, Mr Mamarelis said.

“We are trying to balance the cost and the risk. And right now, I can tell you cost is absolutely secondary. It’s all at risk, health and safety.”

Chris Mamarelis

Key learnings for implementing rapid antigen testing

Mr Mamarelis said the key outcomes were a willingness to participate, reliability of the result, rapid implementation and minimal impact on operations due to a quick result.

“There was a really low refusal rate. Over 99 per cent of the team was accepting of it and participating in it, which was fantastic. Anecdotally, we saw workforce patterns improving in terms of sick leave and roster compliance. That was a really excellent outcome as well,” he said.

Whiddon was provided with PCR tests to use on site for staff members requiring it under a state directive, which made it easier for people to come to work and provided the opportunity to compare the rapid antigen tests to 40 PCR tests run side by side, he said.  

“Being able to compare those tests for reliability and accuracy was another bonus that came out of the trial period.”

A Whiddon staff member with a rapid antigen test

Implementing the raid antigen test was fast and straightforward, Mr Mamarelis said.

“It was a rapid implementation, which started on the Friday and we were operational by the Tuesday. That is a credit to the team and it also speaks to the ease which you can deploy and implement the rapid antigen test.”

Being able to conduct a test within about 12 to 13 minutes also meant minimal disruption to operations, which is an important factor for anyone rolling out a similar initiative, he said.

“We noticed as a result of that it didn’t have a significant impact on the roster. We were able to continue to work within those roster times,” Mr Mamarelis said.

“There are other rapid antigen tests that deliver results within 15 to 20 minutes and anything beyond that threshold, we think will have a roster impact and that is going to put challenges on workforce, on payroll and on those other areas. So that time block that we reported was important.”

It’s also important because staff have to wait outside for their result, and the conditions, including winter weather, can impact on their wellbing, he said.

Rapid antigen testing at Whiddon Easton Park

Rolling out workplace testing — funding needed

Mr Mamarelis said the Federal Department of Health and people from the minister’s office have been very supportive from day one and New South Wales Health has been watching and observing.

He’s also been inundated with calls from fellow aged care providers and other entities about their trial.

”I know of at least a couple of providers who have gone live and at least another three or four that are in discussions to bring them on,” Mr Mamarelis said.

The end of Whiddon’s trial coincided with an announcement from the NSW Government on 28 July that it was working with industry and the Department of Education to introduce rapid antigen testing in workplaces and schools to mitigate against outbreaks.

It’s a move welcomed by Mr Mamarelis who said the rapid antigen tests should be available in places like hospitals, aged care services, hardware stores and supermarkets to create that extra layer of safety and security.

But, it needs Government support to be sustainable, he said.

“It’s a supportive mechanism in terms of the work we’re doing and in providing a safe environment. They’re also practical in terms of workforce management, and we also saw the positive benefits they had on our employees generally,” Mr Mamarelis said.

“[However] there is a cost attached to these and we need some government funding with government support, given all the existing pressures we already have.”

Whiddon has self-funded the tests to date, but is looking for other funding sources for the future.

Mr Mamarelis said deciding to implement the rapid antigen test was based on the external environment including high levels of community transmission and low vaccination rates.

“We are trying to balance the cost and the risk. And right now, I can tell you cost is absolutely secondary. It’s all at risk, health and safety.”

Main image: Rapid antigen testing at Whiddon Easton Park

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