Some COVID cases being counted twice in NSW due to teething issues with RAT reporting

NSW Health has conceded teething problems with its rapid COVID-19 test reporting system means some people may have been counted twice.

Key points:

  • NSW health says it's working through "data and related issues" related to rapid antigen test reporting 
  • Epidemiologist Adrian Esterman says modelling is now hard due to the influx of RAT results
  • Shadow health minister Ryan Park says the data is also inaccurate due to the shortage of RATs

This was problematic for making public health decisions as the Omicron outbreak drags on, a leading epidemiologist said.

NSW Health said yesterday's 91,928 reported COVID cases, which included at least 61,387 rapid antigen test (RAT) results, contained double ups.

The system to self-report RATs in NSW went live on Wednesday, making it mandatory to upload any positive RATs received since January 1.

This back-dating has made the numbers "messy", epidemiologist Adrian Esterman said, and NSW Health has acknowledged their data may have errors.

"There may be some cases included in these numbers where people have reported positive RATs on multiple days," a Health spokesperson said.

"And/or where people have also had a positive PCR test during the same reporting period."

The spokesperson said more detailed breakdowns of the registered RATs would be provided in "due course" but could not say when this would be.

"It’s very early days and the teams are still working through all the data and related issues. But when NSW Health can reliably provide more detailed breakdowns, we will."

Adrian Esterman says calculating the reproduction rate now gives "ridiculous answers" due to the influx of RATs.(Supplied: University of South Australia)

Professor Esterman said the cases in NSW were now "almost impossible" to make sense of, so accurate modelling was difficult.

"The introduction of RAT reporting has muddied the waters and made it more difficult to interpret these things … and we need to know what's happening so we know when to take additional measures," he said. 

"For example, in New South Wales, unless something more is done in terms of public health measures, the hospital system is going to be in deep strife."

In Victoria, RATs started to be counted around a week ago and like NSW, cases quickly doubled overnight because people reported past infections.

Professor Esterman said calculating the overall percentage of positive tests was complicated as it was not known how many people were testing negative at home.

For this reason, he wanted Australia to follow the UK's lead and issue RATs with QR codes which people scan before testing themselves, and then register a negative, positive or void test result. 

But he wasn't hopeful this would happen in Australia.

"It won't happen. We never seem to do what other countries are doing for some reason, which is a great shame."

Premier Dominic Perrottet has long discouraged the public from focusing on case numbers, but Shadow Health Minister Ryan Park said accurate data on the rate of infection mattered greatly.

"Information is important: important for epidemiologists, for modelling and decision making. It's important for policymakers … it gives a sense of how widespread this is," Mr Park said.

Shadow Minister for Health Ryan Park says the most pressing issue is making more rapid antigen tests available.

He said the "unreliable" data NSW Health was providing at the moment was of "considerable concern".

"The figures are not true representations of the level of community cases and that's because it's relying on people to comply and because the government hasn't made rapid antigen tests available right across the community," he said.

"I've got people contacting me every single day, spending days upon days scrounging across the community for tests. Those people, through no fault of their own, have not been able to do what what's required of them so there's no accurate dataset."

The state government has ordered 50 million RATs, which have already started to arrive in NSW, and are seeking to procure another 50 million.

Mr Perrottet said national cabinet decided not to distribute free tests to the wider community because private supply chains would "be compromised through that approach".

He said private providers should have more supply in coming weeks.

Professor Esterman said NSW's case numbers should "settle down" in about four to five days after the influx of RATs, which would allow experts to calculate an accurate reproduction rate.

"The good news is that New South Wales is approaching a peak. I can't tell you exactly when it will be, but probably the next two or three weeks and things will start getting better.

"It's really just a matter of whether their health system can cope the next two or three weeks with such high case numbers and high hospitalisation."

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