Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are replacing PCR tests as the primary testing method in Auckland community testing centres from today as demand continues to soar.
People turning up to the Auckland community testing centres will be given RATs in the first instance.
A PCR test may still be given to anyone who feels uncomfortable doing a RAT or if a staff member identifies it as being appropriate.
Yesterday, RATs were also rolled out to community testing centres in Waikato, Bay of Plenty, and Southern and will be used in conjunction with PCR tests for now.
The increased use of RATs across the country will relieve pressure from PCR testing and reserve it for those who are unwell and more susceptible to the effects of Covid-19, a Ministry of Health statement said.
The new testing system in Auckland will mean symptomatic people and/or asymptomatic close contacts whose RAT is positive will be considered a case and do not need to have a PCR test.
After testing, people will need to record their result in My Covid Record and notify their employer.
The Auckland system will eventually be rolled out to other regions.
The change comes after a warning this morning that some people may never get their Covid test results back as the laboratories are already at capacity.
And the New Zealand Medical Association has issued a red letter to its GPs saying "overwhelmed" doctors shouldn't feel compelled to provide treatment for people in the community with Covid if they are already overstretched.
Meanwhile, the Apex union says surging demand at testing stations far outweighs the number of tests being processed each day.
Testing centres in the country's main centres - particularly in Auckland and Hamilton - are in high demand with massive queues forming at a number of Auckland centres well before they opened this morning.
Some Auckland centres are also having to temporarily close for several hours to manage traffic. By 8.30am a long queue had already formed at the Westgate testing station.
The queue at the Wiri testing centre this morning stretched around neighbouring roads for more than 1km.
It follows a record number of community Covid cases announced by the Ministry of Health yesterday, with the daily tally nearing 3000.
Covid testing already at capacity
Association of Professional and Executive Employees (Apex) national secretary Dr Deborah Powell said labs had already reached capacity. They were getting more tests than they could process each day.
Earlier in the week she saw thousands of tests from Auckland hospitals waiting more than 48 hours to be processed and Powell said staff were not going to get to them.
"That's the bottom line," she told AM.
"We have reached capacity. The forecasting was optimistic and didn't really explain to people what pooling did."
Pooling tests - testing several test samples at the same time - was now pointless because so many tests were now positive and this had significantly reduced capacity by seven-eighths, she said.
Tests were now being prioritised for essential workers and those turning up sick to hospital.
Powell said the figures released by the Government in January claiming PCR testing capacity had been increased to 58,000 a day with a surge capacity of 77,000 tests a day were "appalling" and were not being achieved.
The ministry said today that they currently had capacity to process around 31,000 tests a day.
However, the Northern Regional Health Coordination Centre said yesterday the median wait time for tests was about two days with 10 per cent of tests taking longer than five days to return a result.
It was also changing opening and closing hours to meet anticipated demand.
Stuff reported that director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has said RATs would be provided to everyone at Auckland Covid testing stations in the first instance from today, sidelining the need for PCR testing.
Calls for greater use of Rapid Antigen Tests
Act leader David Seymour is calling on the Government to take urgent steps to approve more rapid antigen tests.
"The union representing lab workers has said capacity has already been reached and some people won't receive results at all."
Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall needed to explain why testing was already at capacity despite being nowhere near the numbers she told New Zealanders they could reach, he said.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon said the answer to getting the country back to normal was through using more rapid tests.
If people could access these from pharmacies or supermarkets, then it would reduce the isolation periods and enable people to get back to work sooner.
Speaking to AM, he said New Zealand needed more RATs and to approve more suppliers.
"We are just not prepared with the tool set, we need to work our way through this next stage."
Experts want people to take Omicron seriously
Meanwhile South Auckland GP Dr Api Talemaitoga says people who are immunocompromised should be extra careful in this outbreak as they are at high risk of catching Covid and at higher risk of being more affected by it.
He told TVNZ's Breakfast show that was particularly important for many people living in South Auckland and specifically the Pasifika community, which is heavily affected in this outbreak.
"It's why it's really important that the public health measures we've been practising all along continue."
Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson said New Zealanders needed to take Omicron seriously and it was not true it was just a mild flu.
"In the States more people have died from Omicron than they have from Delta."
He said Omicron was extremely contagious and far more infectious than Delta. "It spreads like wildfire."
One person with the flu infected about two people but Omicron was higher than six.
The number of hospitalisations in the past two weeks was "going almost vertically".
People needed to get vaccinated and wear a good mask to protect themselves, he said.
New Zealand Medical Association issues a red letter to GP members
The New Zealand Medical Association chairman Alistair Humphrey has told GPs they shouldn't feel compelled to provide treatment for people in the community with Covid if they are already overstretched.
Humphrey told RNZ they had reminded GPs that they needed to keep their ordinary general practices going and should not sacrifice that for an under-resourced Covid response.
He said GPs could refer patients to DHB-organised Covid community hubs if they were not coping.
Some Auckland GPs were already feeling overwhelmed, he said, and the Government should listen to them when they tell them what it costs to run a service, he said.