Recognising that the worst of the COVID pandemic is over, from next week, Canberrans will no longer have to report positive rapid antigen test results to ACT Health.
The one remaining public health direction will be lifted on Tuesday, 28 February. The ACT is the only Australian jurisdiction to have this as a legal requirement, and the Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerryn Coleman, has concluded that it is no longer justified.
“The ACT for quite some time has been the only jurisdiction that mandatorily required people to report a positive rapid antigen test result,” health minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said. “We’ve been out of step with other jurisdictions.”
The Chief Health Officer thought it was important to continue mandatory reporting during December and January’s COVID wave, and not make any major changes during the summer holidays, the minister said.
“But at this point, we’re seeing a real stabilisation in cases,” Ms Stephen-Smith said. “We also recognise the reality that a lot of people, despite the public health declaration, are not reporting when they have a positive rapid antigen test result. Indeed, it may even deter people from undertaking tests because they know they are then mandatorily required to report that result.”
However, Canberrans are still encouraged to report their positive RAT result online via the ACT COVID-19 website to continue the surveillance mechanism.
Reporting positive test results helps ACT Health to connect people to information about COVID-19 care and supports and to monitor the COVID-19 situation in the Territory, Ms Stephen-Smith explained.
The minister encouraged people to use rapid antigen tests if they have COVID-19 symptoms, so they can avoid passing it onto other people, or as a screening tool before visiting vulnerable friends or family, or visiting high-risk settings like hospitals and aged care facilities.
The government will expand its provision of free RATs. Currently, concession card holders can obtain them from public libraries.
From 1 March, they will be available to all Canberrans from public libraries and Access Canberra service centres.
“Please don’t come to the library if you are symptomatic, or if you think you might have COVID,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
RATs are also available at Canberra Health Services facilities, including hospitals, Walk-in Centres, and health centres. Visitors are encouraged to do a RAT before entering.
The Community Services Directorate will provide free RATs for non-government organisations.
RATS can be bought at pharmacies, supermarkets, and other retail stores.
Others will be able to access free PCR testing through pathology centres with a pathology form from their GP or health professional, or if they hold a concession card, from 1 March.
The participating pathology centres will be listed on the ACT COVID-19 website in the coming days.
Anyone who may need additional support or can’t attend a collection centre to get PCR testing can request assistance from ACT Pathology.
Management Declaration will be lifted
The ACT’s COVID-19 Management Declaration will also be stood down next week. Put in place after the Public Health Emergency Declaration was lifted in September, this requires Dr Coleman to advise the government every month on the ACT’s COVID-19 situation.
“The COVID-19 Management Declaration was put in place to enable us to manage COVID-19 at a lower level than the Public Health Emergency, but also to ensure that we could continue to make Public Health Directions where those were required,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
“Of course, if circumstances change in the next few months, we have the opportunity to stand up that Management Declaration again through an executive decision, and to make additional public health directions as required either under my authority or through the Chief Health Officer.”
Garran Surge Centre to close
The Garran Surge Centre will permanently close next Tuesday, 28 February.
“It’s been an incredibly important facility,” Ms Stephen-Smith said. “It’s made such a difference to the ACT’s COVID-19 response, but its time has come to an end.”
The $14 million surge centre opened in May 2020 as a field hospital. It was it designed in a week in partnership with the World Health Organization, and built in 37 days by 100 contractors. It became a vaccination hub in 2021, and a walk-in clinic for COVID patients last year. In its time, Ms Stephen-Smith said, 240,000-odd tests and thousands upon thousands of vaccinations were administered.
The ACT Government will begin decommissioning works. They will engage a consultant to understand what dismantling the surge centre will involve, and whether it could be reused, either by the ACT Government or by the Commonwealth.
“It was always designed to be able to be taken down, dismantled, and re-established somewhere else,” Ms Stephen-Smith said. “When we built the surge centre in early 2020, we envisaged it might be there for six months. It’s now been there for three years nearly.”
The minister thanked the staff involved in the set-up and operation of the Surge Centre.
Ms Stephen-Smith encouraged the public to remain COVID-smart, including being up to date with their vaccinations.
Any adult who has not had a COVID-19 vaccination or confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in the last six months is now eligible for a booster shot.
“That’s the best way to protect yourself against severe disease if you do get COVID-19,” she said.
“I think COVID is going to be with us for a while. Until we understand what happens over this winter with both influenza and COVID-19, we’re not going to have a really clear understanding of what the future looks like into the years ahead. We also know that there is potential for a new variant to come along that does cause more severe illness.”
But bivalent vaccines that target specific variants are being developed.
“That is the way in which we will continue to manage COVID into the future as a more endemic disease,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
Information about these changes and how Canberrans can continue to respond to COVID-19 and access support is available at www.covid19.act.gov.au.