Coronavirus: Rest home bosses perplexed at lack of COVID-19 testing for new residents

The Aged Care Association is shaking its head after the Government again rejected its proposal to test all new residents for COVID-19 before admission.

On Saturday the Ministry of Health revealed two more deaths from the disease, caused by the highly infectious virus SARS-CoV-2, both elderly men. New Zealand's death toll for COVID-19 now stands at four - two of them from a single rest home in Christchurch.

"It's particularly sad on this occasion that the families of those two people were not able to be with them at the end of their lives, in the last days of their lives," Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace told Newshub.

Lockdown rules aimed at stopping the virus' spread have prevented the dying from being comforted by their families.

The virus has killed people of all ages, but is particularly lethal to the elderly. Wallace says the Aged Care Association asked the Government in early March to prioritise testing for people entering rest homes, hoping to prevent it getting in, but was rejected. Since then the eligibility criteria for testing has been widened - though people being admitted to aged care facilities are considered a priority, they still have to be a 'suspect' case - in short, showing symptoms of the disease.

"We wrote to the Director-General of Health earlier this week, setting out our case for testing of all new admissions prior to entry into aged residential care," said Wallace. "We had an immediate reply from the Government - they rejected that request on the basis of the case definition they still use in testing - that they don't test those who are asymptomatic, or have no symptoms."

Scientists' knowledge of how SARS-CoV-2 spreads has advanced since early March, and it's now widely accepted it can be spread by infected people who aren't showing symptoms. 

Earlier this month the Aged Care Association - which represents 90 percent of homes - stopped admitting anyone who hadn't had a test done. Even if they test negative, there's still a 14-day self-isolation requirement.

"We've heard a lot of concern from families of prospective residents going into care. They want these tests being done to provide reassurance, to provide that confidence." 

Wallace rejects suggestions it's a capacity issue, saying there's now enough tests to do 5000 a week, but only 700 new rest home residents a month. 

"So why not do it on what is the most vulnerable group of people in the country? ... We don't think that 700 tests out of 35,000 is a big ask, considering the vulnerability of older people and the health conditions they have." 

Newshub has contacted the Ministry of Health for a response to Wallace's comments.