Due to the national health system’s aggressive cost-cutting measures over the past 20 years, some regions of the island country now have only limited local medical laboratory services
It was in the early 2000s when different district health boards throughout New Zealand decided on a strategy of issuing sole source, multi-year medical laboratory testing contracts in their regions to cut lab test testing costs. Consequently, pathology laboratories that lost their bidding were forced to cease operations or merge with the winning bidders. At the time, New Zealand pathologists and laboratory scientists feared the government health system was undermining the financial stability of pathology laboratories and leaving portions of the country with limited testing capacity.
Now, arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant on the remote island nation may be creating a day of reckoning for that decision. In particular, “holiday hotspots” in New Zealand may be filling up with seasonal travelers at the exact moment a surge in COVID-19 testing is needed.
Holiday Destinations Lack Pathology Lab Capacity
Medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor, president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (NZIMLS), fears some small-town tourist destinations do not have the local-based medical laboratory testing capacity to process a surge in PCR tests and will need to ship samples elsewhere, delaying the speed at which COVID-19 test results can be delivered in communities that attract thousands of vacationers during New Zealand’s summer from December to February.
“In these areas, those swabs that are taken will end up being sent to the mothership so to speak, so one of the larger laboratories that’s nearby those regions,” he told Checkpoint. “So, there will be delays when this starts to kick on.”
Taylor also pointed out that shifting lab work to larger medical centers creates capacity concerns within those facilities as well.
“I will reiterate, all of the big hospitals will obviously still be operating 24-hour services doing the acute work that’s coming through,” he said. “But be aware, we do everything. We don’t just do COVID testing, so sometimes things are just going to have to wait in those periods.”
In a statement to Checkpoint, the New Zealand Ministry of Health maintained COVID-19 testing remained a priority for the government over the Christmas and New Year period.
“The ministry works closely with DHBs (District Health Boards) and laboratories to manage demands for testing, and to reiterate the importance of processing and returning tests as quickly as possible,” the statement said. “It should be noted that samples of close contacts of cases and high-risk individual are prioritized by laboratories.”
Dark Daily Correctly Predicted Pathology Lab Losses
In 2009, Dark Daily reported on New Zealand’s use of contract bidding for pathology lab testing services in Wellington and Auckland in an effort to drive down costs. The winning labs agreed to roughly a 20% decrease in reimbursement rates.
At that time, Editor Robert L. Michel predicted the loss of established pathology providers and insufficient reimbursement rates could lead to scaled down testing menus, loss of skilled staff and a negative impact on patient care. He noted then, “New Zealand may become the first developed country in the world to learn what happens to the entire healthcare system when deep budget cuts finally leave medical laboratories with insufficient reimbursement.
“Such a situation,” Michel continued, “would likely mean that laboratory test providers in New Zealand would lack the funding and resources to offer physicians and patients a full menu of state-of-the-art diagnostics tests. It could also mean that medical laboratories would lack adequate resources and skilled staff to sustain the quality of test results at a world-class level of quality, accuracy, reliability, and reproducibility. In either case, the quality of patient care would be negatively affected.”
Fast forward to 2022, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues some New Zealand leaders fear the opening of Auckland’s border to summer travelers will lead to community spread of the coronavirus at a time when budget cuts have left these same regions with local pathology testing capacity that is insufficient to meet the needs of the surrounding community.
In fact, New Zealand’s first case of community exposure to the Omicron variant was reported in Auckland on December 29, 2021, a Ministry of Health news release noted.
“You’re going to see the virus seeded everywhere,” epidemiologist Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, told The Guardian in mid-November.
Critical Supply Shortages as Pathology Testing ‘Crunch Point’ Reached
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand’s clinical laboratory system nearly reached a breaking point as a shortage of COVID-19 tests left the system teetering on the edge of collapse.
According to Joshua Freeman, MD, Clinical Director of Microbiology and Virology at the Canterbury DHB, the “crunch point” arrived around March 20, 2020, when New Zealanders were being urged to get tested so the country could determine if there was community transmission of the virus, online news site Stuff reported.
Meanwhile, testing supplies such as reagents, plastic tubes, and pipette tips were in short supply globally and 13 regional labs were yet to be set up across the country. Even once the new laboratories, district health board testing centers, and mobile clinics were up and running, procuring needed supplies remained challenging, according to COVID-19 testing data from the Ministry of Health.
America also Struggled with COVID-19 Supply Shortages
While New Zealand’s mostly publicly funded universal healthcare system has been stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s private system has not fared much better. In the early months of the pandemic, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests, and testing materials also were in short supply in this country.
CBS News reported that the US was continuing to struggle with limited supplies of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests and long turnaround times for clinical laboratory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests as families gathered for the recent holiday season.
Thus, clinical laboratory leaders and laboratory scientists in this country should watch with keen interest at how New Zealand’s pathology laboratories fare as the Omicron variant further challenges the country’s testing capacity.
—Andrea Downing Peck
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