So, you’ve tested positive to COVID-19 but can’t record a RAT online — what now?

So, you’ve tested positive to COVID-19 but can’t record a RAT online — what now?
  • PublishedSeptember 20, 2023

For those watching Australia’s COVID-19 case tallies, late May and early June not only marked the start of some colder weather, but also a peak in national case numbers and COVID-related deaths.

However, since then, a mask sighting on public transport is increasingly rare and at home medicine cabinets are more or less devoid of any self-testing kits.

And as we head further into spring and the weather gets warmer, it seems fewer of us than ever are watching the case numbers like we used to.

Some experts reckon it’s probably for the best as we enter into a new territory of case reporting.

What’s happening around the country?

COVID-19 data recording and reporting around Australia currently varies from state to state, with different requirements when it comes to recording a positive test.

As of July 1, 2023, Victoria no longer collects information on COVID-19 self-reported rapid antigen test results.

Meaning, weekly numbers of COVID-19 cases in Victoria are only based on hospital case recordings and PCR tests.

Like Victoria, Queensland no longer collects information on self-reported rapid antigen tests, as of August 31 this year.

It’s also stopped providing state-based weekly case reports on its website — instead referring people to national data.

For other states like Western Australia, self-reporting is still very much encouraged and weekly surveillance reports are published online.

In the Northern Territory, recording a positive test is encouraged, however, NT Health said “registration is no longer mandatory”.

Its case numbers are updated fortnightly and it said there are no plans to suspend the reporting.

South Australia also encourages the reporting of positive self-testing and provides a weekly surveillance report, as does the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania.

New South Wales remains the only state or territory to publish an in-depth weekly respiratory surveillance report on its website, providing a snapshot of COVID-19 across the state.

At a national level, the Department of Health and Aged Care publishes a weekly report on its website recording cases to date from across the country — which does not include rapid antigen test results from Victoria or Queensland.

Time to focus on active surveillance

Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett thinks it’s “high time” to move to more of a surveillance model of recording cases instead of weekly case reports.

A portrait of a woman wearing glasses
Epidemiologist Catherine Bennett says weekly COVID-19 reports aren’t a reliable source for the community.(Supplied)

“It’s got to be something we can manage long-term,” Professor Bennett said.

“It’s about having a reliable system where you can monitor trends — you don’t want to be seeing numbers push up and discover it’s an artefact of testing changes or behavioural changes with testing.”

Professor Bennett said the current weekly reports aren’t actually telling us what’s in the community due to the “instability of self-reporting as a measure”.

“The problem with self-reporting is that it really underestimates how many infections are in the community, so people might have a false sense of reassurance,” she said.

“While we’re in this transition and we’re still learning about the virus and what might be ahead, more active surveillance is necessary.”

Professor Bennett said surveillance of the community through random testing, as well as close screening at hospitals and at GPs, would ensure the Health Department has a “good finger on the pulse”.

A woman wearing a face mask walks in Melbourne's CBD. A tram can be seen in the background.
Professor Bennett says more active surveillance is necessary while the country is in a transitional period with reporting COVID-19 cases.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

James Trauer, head of epidemiological modelling at Monash University, agrees self-reported rapid antigen testing isn’t completely reliable but said weekly reports should continue for a while longer.

“It’s important that people remember that just because they’re not a useful part of epidemiology or surveillance, they can still be really important for other reasons,” he said.

“What’s more important though, is reporting syndromes, sentinel sites and testing of hospitalised cases of people who have ended up severely unwell with COVID.”

Dr Trauer also said fragmentation of the virus was still a major issue and he believes “better reconciled national data” will happen with the implementation of Australia’s Centre for Disease Control.

‘Awkward time’ for states to align

Data analyst Anthony Macali agrees it’s time for the recording of COVID-19 to move into the data of general diseases and infections.

Mr Macali launched COVID Live in 2020, a site which provides regularly updated COVID-19 case numbers from across the country, but he thinks the site might be archived soon.

“We all know COVID’s not going away and we need some kind of reporting solution, but not the same as what we had during the emergency pandemic stage,” he said.

Man with glasses wearing orange facemask has plastic swab inserted in nostril by woman wearing blue gloves and yellow gown.
Professor Catherine Bennett suggested implementing random COVID-19 testing within the community as a surveillance measure. (ABC News: Jerry Rickard)

He said some people are still interested in the weekly numbers, but it’s a “smaller subset”.

“We used to report on COVID cases daily up until November last year,” Mr Macali said.

“Probably since that time when we switched to weekly [reporting], the interest in the data reporting has dropped off a lot, but there’s still a group which is checking it regularly.”

The data analyst said regular surveillance reporting on COVID-19 would still keep people informed, but all states need to take the same approach.

“All the states are out of alignment at the moment and it’s a bit awkward as they all slowly switch off [reporting weekly numbers],” he said.

“Now that winter’s finished, I wouldn’t be surprised if national reporting on numbers stopped in the next month or so.”

When will case reporting stop?

What will this post-pandemic period look like and when will reporting of case numbers become a thing of the past?

According to the Department of Health, providing up to date weekly information will continue for now.

“Surveillance data remains available to the public to support awareness, research and to inform locally relevant public health measures,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.

“[We will] continue to work closely with all States and Territories to refine COVID-19 epidemiology and surveillance methods to support Australia’s transition away from emergency measures towards more sustainable but effective approaches.”

The spokesperson said the department was developing a new approach in line with the National COVID-19 Health Management Plan to help with this transition period.

The new approach will combine “genomic sequencing, laboratory confirmed notification data, sentinel surveillance, wastewater analysis and healthcare utilisation data” — to detect and respond to intermittent waves.

As for an exact date we might stop seeing case numbers reported, Professor Bennett isn’t sure.

“I don’t know how quickly that will happen,” she said.

“It might be that the case reports drop off the top of that report and that we’re just looking at the other data … which is potentially going to be recorded on an ongoing basis.”


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