How did coronavirus testing almost triple in New South Wales?

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in New South Wales the community appeared to quickly embrace changes with their social distancing and personal hygiene.

The closure of businesses and schools resulted in people taking the disease seriously — quickly changing their behaviour.

Several months later, as the restrictions began to ease and people were allowed to move around to participate in ‘non-essential’ activities, evidence began to appear that people had forgotten important public health messages about social distancing and general hygiene. For example, Sydney’s CBD hosted two mass gatherings where people protested about an issue they felt strong about.

Six months after the coronavirus pandemic emergency arrived in Australia, public health officials in New South Wales dramatically changed their messaging about the disease — and it resulted in a huge upswing in COVID-19 tests and a re-engagement with the coronavirus public health messages.

How did the public health message change in NSW?

The only information made public was the location of the local council area where the coronavirus victim was self-isolating.

“We clearly have some activity in the Ryde area, Ryde/Hornsby area” — NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant speaking to media on Thursday 12th March 2020.

The only time that a specific coronavirus location was announced early in the pandemic was when the NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a sick employee had been working for a week at the Newmarch House nursing home in Caddens.

“No doubt she thought she was doing the right thing, but she was unfortunately not doing the right thing” — NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard speaking at a media conference on the 13th April 2020.

Traditionally, New South Wales Health has never withheld information about the specific movement of people with diseases. For example, public health alerts about the movement of people with measles has always been released by public health officials. So, why was this information not being announced about people with COVID-19 who had been moving around our suburbs?

That all changed on Thursday 2nd July 2020 when NSW Health released information about a Woolworths employee who had flown from Melbourne to Sydney and had tested positive for coronavirus after working two days in Balmain.

For the first time, specific information had been released about where a person, who may have been infectious with COVID-19, had been moving. Immediately all staff at the Woolworths store had to self-isolate and customers had to report for testing.

Suddenly, testing for COVID-19 in NSW went from a daily average in late June of about 11,000 people to 18,000.

Prior to this point in the pandemic, NSW Health were casting wide non-specific nets hoping that people, who lived in local council areas where coronavirus had been detected, would turn up to pop-up testing locations.

But, after the dramatic change in messaging by public health officials, shoppers at a large grocery store were being asked to present for testing.

The next specific public health alert was issued about the Crossroads Hotel on Sunday 12th July 2020. It’s thought a Victorian truckie aged in his 20s who had dined at the hotel on the 3rd July 2020 was carrying the disease.

Over the next couple of weeks, NSW public health officials continued to release specific information about a gym at Casula, the Thai Rock restaurant at Wetherill Park, the Batemans Bay Soldiers Club, Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Harris Park, cases in Port Stephens and in south west Sydney.

The result of these more specific public alerts is that COVID-19 tests tripled across July 2020. From 10,000 tests a day to 30,000 tests a day. And the public is re-engaged in the coronavirus public health emergency.

A COVID-19 testing station located outside Lindt Cafe in Martin Place, Sydney (25th July 2020)

The COVID-19 scare at the Crossroads Hotel in Casula resulted in the hospitality industry taking their COVID-safe responsibilities more seriously. By law, you can’t enter a cafe or hotel now without scanning a QR Code to leave your personal information. The Casula outbreak also resulted in a reduction in the number of people allowed at inside one venue, and group bookings maxed at 10.

Based on the number of people presenting themselves for testing in July, you’ll see more localised messages about the movement of the disease in our suburbs.

Coronavirus testing locations — Map created by NSW Health

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