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Brooke Stanton tests a driver at the Covid clinic at Chifley, Sydney, Australia
‘I’m sad to go’ … Brooke Stanton tests a driver on her final day working at the Chifley Covid clinic. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
‘I’m sad to go’ … Brooke Stanton tests a driver on her final day working at the Chifley Covid clinic. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Testing times: workers’ three years on Covid frontline comes to an end as NSW clinics close

Healthcare workers who were ‘here all along when people needed us’ remember the highs and lows of the pandemic

Most Australians will be glad to see the end of having a stranger shove a swab up their nose to test for Covid-19.

Likely even more so, the hours spent in a snaking queue of cars in the mid-summer heat to get a PCR test after a holiday cut short. Or being in the queue because you’d sooner see a blue moon than find a rapid antigen test.

But as Brooke Stanton, one of the healthcare workers who helped administer the more than 33m PCR tests that have been taken across New South Wales, says: “We’ve been here all along when people needed us … I’m sad to go.”

On Saturday, New South Wales became the last state in Australia to end state-funded referral-free community PCR testing for Covid-19 after a reduction in demand for the tests.

At the time of the announcement in April, the health minister, Ryan Park, said it was the right time to scale it back as the health recommendations, testing behaviour and access to RATs had changed.

During the lunchtime lull on the final operating day of the drive-through PCR test clinic in the Sydney suburb of Chifley, Stanton, clad in blue protective gear, reaches through the window of Deirdre Fairbairn’s car to take a swab.

Fairbairn is among those who Stanton has got to know in her three years conducting tests at the clinic. They include women who were pregnant when they first stopped for a test, and whose children are now almost three, and also a few regulars that Stanton says have since died.

Fairbairn, 74, is worried about having to get a referral from a GP now to get a test. Histopath, which runs the Chifley site and a number of others across the city and regional NSW, will continue to offer PCR testing for Covid-19, flu and RSV for $49.

“If I get sick I’ll just dial [triple 0] because I live alone,” Fairbairn says from her car.

In the week leading up to 11 May, there were 12,980 Covid-19 cases, 59 deaths and 6,614 PCR tests.

Fairbairn is among only a handful of people who come through the testing clinic while Guardian Australia visits on Friday.

It’s a far cry from two year’s ago, when Fairbairn made homemade apple slice for the healthcare workers to try to help ease their stress.

Greg Granger, the director of operations at Histopath, recalls 18-hour work days and news helicopters buzzing overhead during the first year of the Covid pandemic.

“There was no experience we could reflect on to model how to plan this out,” he says. “The concept of a drive-through pathology was just so unreal the first time it was floated.”

According to NSW Health, the testing peak was in August 2021, with 4.1m tests conducted that month. This was followed by about 3.2m in December 2021.

But it’s the outbreak of the northern beaches cluster at the end of 2020 that sticks in Granger’s mind as the busiest time.

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“They all turned up for a test. I mean, all of them,” he says. “And speaking to the patients as they came through, they weren’t symptomatic, they weren’t in close contact, they just wanted to do the right thing ... they were prepared to wait three, four, five hours.”

Brooke Stanton at the Covid clinic at Chifley on its last day. Sydney, Australia
End of an era … Brooke Stanton reflects on her three years working at a Covid clinic. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

But then the vibe started to shift. The worst time, Stanton says, was when travellers to Queensland were required to get a negative PCR test before arrival for Christmas holidays.

“My god, that was horrible, and people were pissed off then and taking it out on us,” she says. “The traffic [controllers] were spat on, you’d get abused if the wait was too long.”

Prof Peter Collignon, an expert in infectious diseases at the Australian National University, says it is unsurprising referral-free testing is ending, given the days of needing to complete a large volume of tests is over. And at $100-$200 for a test, he says the money is likely better spent elsewhere in the health system.

“The circumstances are different because the consequences are different – your risk now from Covid is 20 or 30 times lower than what it was in 2020,” he says.

At one point PCR tests were the major indicator of how much Covid-19 was in the community, but the number of people getting tested is now so low a more efficient and reliable measure is testing sewage.

Collignon says the main group affected by the end of drive-through testing will be more vulnerable Australians who need a PCR to access antivirals.

“We still need readily accessible PCRs for some people, I don’t think it needs to be a drive-through, but we need pathology to test fairly quickly and not be delayed by a doctor,” he says.

The Covid clinic at Chifley prepares to close for good. Sydney, Australia
The Covid clinic at Chifley prepares to close for good. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

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