Expansion of saliva testing for frontline border workers

More than 1400 of New Zealand’s border workers can look forward to less invasive testing for COVID-19, with an expansion of saliva testing at key frontline facilities, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says.

“This is an important next step in our mandatory testing of frontline border workers,” Chris Hipkins said.

“Saliva testing will complement the nasopharyngeal swab, which remains the gold standard for testing and which has played a key role in keeping New Zealand safe.

“Extensive due diligence has been completed and we are now satisfied that a combination of the two tests, along with frontline managed isolation workers being very close to being fully vaccinated, will continue to provide the assurances we need at the border while reducing the level of discomfort among frontline staff.   

“What today’s announcement means is that workers who have to be tested for COVID-19 once a week because of their important roles, can now have saliva swabbing incorporated as part of that mandatory regime.

“As part of a phased roll-out beginning in June, these workers can choose to be part of a regime of multiple saliva tests, and a single nasopharyngeal swab each fortnight.

“We’re satisfied we’re starting the introduction of saliva testing at the right time but will move with caution to ensure compliance with the Border Workforce Testing Register.

“Compliance with the regime will be monitored via the Register and following the roll-out to the weekly groups, we’ll assess how the saliva testing programme is progressing.

“Border workers do tell us about a level of discomfort when they have to have a nasopharyngeal swab once a week,” Chris Hipkins said.

“And, with the border workforce now being vaccinated, they feel more protected and less likely to get infected -- but are also less likely to be symptomatic if they do.

“The addition of more frequent saliva testing is designed to address this. Expert advice is that will work well in detecting any cases in border workers when it’s carried out at an increased frequency and appropriately complemented by nasopharyngeal swabs.

“A phased roll-out will take place, with higher risk workers who are tested weekly, prioritised first.

“These workers can choose their testing regime to consist of a nasopharyngeal swab once every 14 days, instead of weekly. Saliva samples will be taken every two to three days in between nasopharyngeal swabs. This increased frequency will improve our surveillance.

“They also choose to maintain the weekly nasopharyngeal swab if they wish.

“Officials are working through what is needed to deliver this roll-out, including the necessary system changes, reporting and assurance activities and how to support both workers and employers to understand what the changes mean for them.

“As with all COVID-19 testing, processing will be carried out by appropriately accredited New Zealand laboratories.

“From the beginning, testing has been an essential part of our elimination strategy and the key starting point for identifying and containing the spread of COVID-19.

“Thank you to frontline workers and all New Zealanders who take COVID-19 tests. This really does help to keep New Zealand safe,” Chris Hipkins said.

Background:

Today’s announcement follows a Request for Proposal (RFP) for COVID-19 saliva testing services released by the Ministry of Health.

As a result of the RFP, the successful tenderer for the delivery of saliva testing services at the border is Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG).

Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG) provides a wide range of pathology services to 75 percent of New Zealand’s population and has a network of 25 laboratories and 150 collection centres.

They have been heavily involved in New Zealand’s response to COVID-19, processing a third of all tests carried out in New Zealand to date.

One of the Ministry’s considerations in awarding this contract was that the successful tenderer could independently provide the total service from the point of collection to providing automated notification for negative test results, without having to draw on the current health workforce.