News & Trends - Medical Technology

Rapid antigen tests should be freely available amid surge, say AMA, SPHA and PHAA

Health Industry Hub | January 12, 2022 |
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MedTech News: The Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia (SHPA) has called for COVID-19 rapid antigen tests (RATs) to be made freely available as stress on hospital capacity grows due to surging infections.

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) also supported the call for an equitable supply of RATs.

SHPA Chief Executive Kristin Michaels said increasing the accessibility of rapid antigen tests is both sound public health policy as well as an urgent weapon in the effort to limit hospitalisations and pressure on PCR testing capacity due to the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“With the explosion in case numbers in every state and territory, bar Western Australia, the power and importance of rapid antigen tests as part of our public health response has also quickly increased.

“If freely available to everyone at such a critical time, rapid test results can guide many more Australians in considering whether they truly require a PCR test or can follow direct and clear advice to self-manage symptoms at home and, most importantly, encourage as many as possible to reduce their movements and limit the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

“At a minimum, rapid antigen tests should be prioritised for the most at-risk population groups, such as residential aged care facility residents and workers, hospital workers, the immunocompromised and Australians living with a disability. In recent days, SHPA has heard from various Hospital Pharmacists who have been unable to access a rapid antigen test along with their hospital colleagues.”

PHAA CEO, Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin, said “It’s an essential tool for communicable disease control. With the difficulty of getting a PCR test, many people just want to be confident they don’t have the virus before they interact with others. RATs do, and must continue to play, an essential role in a pandemic that is looking increasingly out of control.

“We cannot diminish the incredible work of our public health and healthcare workers across the continent by letting market forces decide who can afford to get and use RATs during this health emergency.

“Equity matters – as it does for every aspect of public health. The people most at risk from the pandemic are often least able to afford RATs, if they can find any. Everyone has the right to access RATs, not just those who can afford it, nor the insatiable desires of retailers who have the unusually close ear of government.

“We didn’t let the market decide the price for COVID-19 vaccines, and we must not let it determine RAT prices.”

Australian Medical Association (AMA) President, Dr Omar Khorshid, commented “The benefits of these tests – like wearing a mask and washing your hands – are for others in the community, not just the person taking the test. Given the soaring case numbers which most likely represent just a fraction of actual infection rates, and the stretched capacity for PCR tests, we are running out of time to get widespread use of RATs in the community underway and support people to do the right thing.

“There’s no time for piecemeal measures, like targeted subsidies which might be difficult to implement. We need to harness the goodwill in the community to use RAT kits and free access for everybody. Health care workers, including GPs and their staff, need urgent priority access to RAT kits in order to keep working and providing health care to the public.”

Ms Michaels added “While data on the now-dominant Omicron variant continues to emerge, there is always a correlation between COVID-19 and hospitalisations and after nearly two years of unyielding pressure our hospital workforce can, and should be protected, just as they protect us.”

As noted by the National Cabinet, COVID-19 tests are free at state testing clinics for people who have symptoms or are a close contact. National Cabinet has now agreed that up to 10 RATS over three months (a maximum of 5 in a month) will be made available free through pharmacies to people holding the following cards:

  • Pension Concession Card
  • Commonwealth Seniors Health Care Card
  • Department of Veterans’ Affairs Gold, White or Orange Card
  • Health Care Card
  • Low Income Health Card

Dr Khorshid added that in addition to RATs being free, the Commonwealth must also fund a high-profile and effective, multilingual communication campaign – with ads on TV – advising people how and when they should use the tests.

“The vastly improved access to RAT kits should be used to bring in a new comprehensive national strategy for the public health management of Omicron, which protects our critical health services and includes clear
advice on how to manage the virus if you get it.”

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