One of New Zealand's biggest laboratory service providers is planning to triple its output of Covid testing in the coming weeks as Omicron takes hold in the community.
Comprising a network of 25 laboratories around the country, Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG) processes about a third of New Zealand's Covid tests, and last week delivered its two millionth test since the pandemic began.
Chief executive Anoop Singh said they had undergone significant preparations for Omicron's arrival over the past few months, looking at how testing capacity had fared in countries such as Australia.
Coming out of the holiday period, APHG labs around the country were processing between 8000 and 10,000 tests a day – but they aimed to triple this within just a few weeks.
"The ministry has given an indication that the industry capacity is at roughly 58,000 tests a day – and in the surge period it's 70,000 to 80,000 or thereabouts," Singh said.
"We've been targeting in our labs to do somewhere between 24,000 and 30,000 tests a day, and that's our current plan.
"If there was a tripling of requirements, that's what we're gearing up for ... we're as ready as we can be for hitting the targets the ministry has put out."
Singh said a national total of 50,000 tests a day would be on par with the peak of last year's Delta outbreak, but they were also preparing for it to exceed this.
"Fortunately for us Delta has been a great learning curve in terms of building capacity, and we almost planned for the surge while Delta was happening," Singh said.
The company had invested $15 million in high-volume PCR analysers and front-end robotics – designed to increase throughput and free up staff - beginning this process in July, in response to the onset of the Delta outbreak in Australia.
Four high-volume analysers were now operational in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland labs, with a fifth to be in place in the Hutt Valley by mid next month.
Nine front-end robotic systems were also going in across our laboratories, the first of which were in place and running in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.
The highly automated machines reduced manual labour, which meant they saved time and fatigue of staff, creating a more efficient process.
As Covid only made up a small percentage of the network's overall testing workload, they had also employed 200 staff since the beginning of the pandemic to help manage Covid tests.
Singh said the investment in new machines and recruitment of extra staff had put them in a much better position than pre-Delta.
"We've still got the unknown of how and when Omicron cases will increase and how that's going to play out," he said.
"But we're a lot better off now than we were when Delta came."
In the current phase of the Omicron outbreak – phase 1 – the government had outlined the "stamp it out" approach, which would end when daily cases reached the thousands.
Singh said phase two would be when they would experience the surge, but they suspected this phase to only last two or three weeks, before rapid antigen tests rolled out more widely in phase three.
Compared to the pressure on testing capacity seen over the past weeks in Australia - where wait times for a test result blew out to weeks – Singh said New Zealand was in a good position to handle the stress on laboratories.
"The phasing is quite well set out with phases one two and three," he said.
"Some of the difficulty we saw in Australia was that it almost went into that phase three scenario without a phased approach.
"I think the government is absolutely on the right track using RAT testing as a diagnostic tool in phase three – that will allow us to focus the PCR testing on priority groups so that we're not inundating the system and not having the problems the Australian labs found themselves in."
"There's going to be a fairly significant difference to the Australian experience, I think in New Zealand we're a little bit better prepared."
Testing labs would not escape the staffing shortages expected because of people isolating, but Singh said their recent recruitment would help ease this.
They also had the ability to move staff and samples around the country to fill shortages and process tests efficiently.