By RNZ

Frontline health workers say they are pleased people displaying symptoms of Covid-19, regardless of their travel history, can now be tested for the virus.

But many are still calling for the Ministry of Health to allow them to test patients themselves, rather than just refer them to designated testing stations.

After mounting calls from public health experts to broaden the criteria for testing, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced changes.

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"Today the technical advisory group met ... that group have recommended broadening the case definition for testing," she said.

"This will widen testing to include people with Covid-19 symptoms but not necessarily a history of travel, or exposure to another case, to be tested."

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The previous criteria meant people needed to have travelled overseas within the last 14 days, or been in contact with someone who had, to be eligible for testing.

Doctor David Hill, a Palmerston North clinician, said it was the right move but it did not quite go far enough.

"If it's still having to go to testing stations rather than us doing it ourselves, it creates a barrier," he said.

"The requirements, the forms that we've had to complete to refer, are really just cumbersome. I want to see that we can actually test patients in our clinic, or the process to referring to testing centres is much more straightforward."

Dr Hill said the Ministry of Health had not responded to requests from front-line health workers to carry out testing themselves.

Covid-19 and the associated social-distancing has created a worldwide trend of 'balcony concerts' which started in Italy in mid-March.

He feared the full picture of community transmission in New Zealand would not be known until they could.

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"We've had no guidance," he said.

"That comes down to this idea of knowing what's going on in the community, this idea of prevalence, of how much of the virus is actually in the community that we don't know about.

"Unless we test more patients, we won't find out."

Meanwhile registered nurse Charlotte, who works for Health Hub Project in Palmerston North, said patients were coming into the clinic every day with symptoms of Covid-19.

She said under the old criteria, many of those patients were being turned away.

"I probably get maybe three of four a day that are displaying the similar symptoms that are named under the criteria," she said.

"So if I just describe one, they've had the shortness of breath, the cough, the fevers but because they haven't been overseas, or known anyone who has been overseas that they've been in contact with, they were then told they don't meet the criteria and they will therefore not be tested."

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Charlotte said while the broadened criteria for testing was a good outcome, front-line workers still had no way of knowing whether or not the patients they were coming into contact with had the virus because they could not test them.

She said that puts them - and the community - at risk.

"If they're not being tested, if there is no widespread community testing, we don't know if we're coming into contact with it.

"We are then either going home or going to the supermarket, and we are obviously touching things that other people will be touching."

Charlotte said all front line health workers should be resourced to carry out tests themselves, to ensure no-one else was slipping through the cracks.

"We have all the correct PPE to test and at the site that I'm working from, which is a repository site, we've set ourselves up so that if we did have to test then we were able to.

"I don't know if its coming from the government or if its coming from Mid Cental DHB but there's not enough testing kits or there's not enough resources to provide us with those testing kits."

More than 21,000 tests have been carried out in New Zealand so far, with the capacity now to do about 3500 a day.

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Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website