Unmasking the brave COVID-19 testers

Members of the CBAC teamWhen Dr Alistair Sullivan and his urgent care team were given the go-ahead to set up the country’s first COVID-19 testing stations they pulled out all the stops to get them open in just one week. 

Our network operated three of the first five so-called community based assessment centres (CBACs) that opened in Auckland on Saturday, 21 March. Each of them has been solely focussed on testing and assessment for COVID-19.

“We had a blueprint for CBACs,” says Alistair, Tāmaki Health’s director of urgent care, “but New Zealand had only set up one before, back in 2013 in Christchurch to test for swine flu. Nothing had been done on the scale we now had to produce and we had lots of challenges to get it right within one week.”

Close cooperation

Total Healthcare and its provider network Tāmaki Health worked urgently and closely with all of the region’s DHBs and the other PHO networks to design and implement an efficient testing system.

“Luckily, within our network we already had an urgent care focus and the flexibility to move quickly to convert St Luke’s White Cross, Henderson Specialist Centre and Airport Oaks Local Doctors to CBACs,” Alistair says.

It still meant refitting all three centres for purpose and redirecting staff to new roles within them. Everyone also had to take refresher courses in safe practices and use of PPE, though some front-desk staff were wearing it for the first time.

“Clinicians, nursing and administrative staff had to learn new ways of working with patients who were driving up and remaining in their cars at each centre. Some of our staff managed traffic flow, others were on triage. Inside the centres, we had people coordinating with external agencies and others working on data management.”

Workplace support

Alistair says good workplace support was also needed for staff who were having to deal with their own nervousness and fear amid media reports of rates of infection and death among healthcare workers overseas.

“We have reached a stage here now where community transmission of the virus is low but that wasn’t the case on Day One. As well as living with the uncertainty around that, our staff also were having to deal with the anxiety and desperation of the public who had come in for testing in those first few weeks because they were terrified they had caught the virus. Sometimes people were very confronting, and our team had to quickly learn strategies for managing those situations. It was very challenging.

“But all of our people have taken it on the chin. We have a pool of 30 staff members at each centre, with 15 to 20 of them working in each location at a time. They have been open every day since 21 March. 

“All of them have been utterly fantastic.”

By the end of April, Tāmaki Health’s three CBACs had seen just under 13,000 Aucklanders and tested 11,096 of them for COVID-19, representing one-third of the total number of CBAC tests across the region. The number of CBACs open across Auckland has expanded to 14 since the first weeks of testing, with another five pop-up testing stations.