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Rapid antigen test ban overturned in South Australia amid surge in COVID case numbers

A ban on rapid antigen testing is finally overturned in South Australia, as health authorities work to combat an eruption of COVID-19 cases and community transmission of the virus.

Rapid antigen testing has finally been introduced among the South Australian public, as health authorities work to combat an eruption of COVID-19 cases and community transmission of the virus.

Key points:
  • Rapid antigen tests are going on sale at supermarkets and pharmacies across SA
  • The move comes after SA recorded almost 500 daily cases on Thursday
  • Huge demand is expected, with one supermarket advising of limits on sales of the tests

Last night, the state's police commissioner lifted a ban on the tests after SA on Thursday recorded 484 new infections.

That daily record was again surpassed today, with 688 new cases reported by Premier Steven Marshall this morning.

Huge demand for the self-administered spot tests is expected, with supermarkets and pharmacies now starting to stock them.

"They'll be made available over the next week. In terms of supply, people might have to be patient," Acting Health MInister Rob Lucas said.

The tests are not intended to replace the more accurate PCR testing, and are recommended for people who do not have COVID-19 symptoms.

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Health authorities are hoping the availability of the rapid tests will reduce long queues at testing clinics such as Victoria Park, where waiting times recently blew out to eight hours.

"It'll take some of the enormous pressure that we've seen — not just in South Australia but around the nation — off our testing facilities," Mr Lucas said.

"We've had a very big jump [in cases] in South Australia.

"There's a lot of pressure on our testing facilities and we really want our testing facilities to be really a priority for those who are either suspected of having COVID-19 because they've got symptoms or they're a close contact."

Rapid antigen tests (RATs) had already been rolled out among some health workers in SA, but remained off limits for the general public.

The change in policy leaves Western Australia as the only state where RATs remain generally unavailable.

Five boxes of rapid antigen tests stacked on a shop counterFive boxes of rapid antigen tests stacked on a shop counter
Rapid antigen tests sold out within minutes at Star Discount Chemist Collinswood on Christmas Eve, after a ban on the sale of the tests was lifted yesterday.(ABC News: Stacey Lee)

The SA Health website has not caught up with the change, and still states that "the use of rapid antigen tests by the general public is currently prohibited given the low level of COVID-19 in the community to date and the wide availability of gold-standard PCR testing".

"The continued restriction of this test in South Australia when it is permitted in other states reflects the different levels of COVID-19 in communities throughout Australia," it states.

However, health authorities and the government had foreshadowed the change in direction.

"We are already using them in the medical sector, the dental sector and the mining sector where it is a useful screen, a surveillance screen," the Premier said on Thursday.

"We're pretty close to making them generally available. The logistics are there. We have millions of test kits already here in South Australia."

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How to take a rapid antigen test

Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said it was very important that the public understood that the tests were "not as sensitive" as PCR tests.

"It's a screening test and it's very much like if you're a woman and you're doing your screening for breast cancer, you can have a mammogram to screen but if they find a lump they need to do a biopsy to make the diagnosis," she said.

"Any positive result needs to be followed up, like a mammogram. [It] has to be followed up with a PCR test.

"The most important message for South Australians is if you have symptoms you do need a PCR test."

Tests to be rationed for time being

Supermarket chain Foodland has advised there will be a limit of one test per customer, with more stock due next week.

Foodland CEO Franklin dos Santos said he was expecting high demand for the tests when they hit the supermarket's shelves from mid-morning.

"It'll be one per customer at the moment. We are trying to manage this," he said.

"I don't see that stock lasting too long, we have placed substantial orders on stock to come in which are due in early next week and then, again, we'll maintain one per customer just to be fair."

A woman with grey hair wearing a pink jacket speaks to microphonesA woman with grey hair wearing a pink jacket speaks to microphones
SA Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier says anyone with symptoms needs to get a PCR test.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Professor Spurrier said the tests could be especially useful "if you were going to go visit somebody that's vulnerable, so somebody in an aged care or somebody with chronic health problems, or you're going to go to a hospital".

She said RATs could conceivably replace PCR tests for those who were asymptomatic but deemed a close contact of a known case.

"In terms of casual contacts we might get to a stage of switching over to rapid antigen testing and the other thing I'm looking at very closely with our team is the value of the day 13 test particularly for vaccinated people and particularly for casual contacts," she said.

"The last reason … [is that] there's many people in our community very anxious at the moment because we haven't had disease and we're seeing increasing numbers and sometimes it's just peace of mind to go and have that test."

Professor Spurrier also apologised for an IT error that had caused queues at drive-through PCR testing clinics to blow out again last night.

"It's been rectified but I would like to apologise to people of South Australia who have spent a lot of time lining up overnight. I actually feel really very sorry for you but there's nothing I can do besides apologise just at this stage," she said.

The delays have caused uncertainty for people keen to know whether they can celebrate Christmas tomorrow.

Professor Spurrier said staff at testing labs would be working hard "to make sure that we can get a really quick turnaround time for people".

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