COVID-19 experts call for random surveillance testing at Auckland supermarkets in bid to 'crush outbreak'

There wasn't much action at the Mangere COVID-19 testing site on Monday, where the only lines were the orange road cones, and just a few turned out at the Wiri centre.

But a month into level 4 restrictions and with rising cases, there are calls for a change of tactic. 

"Clearly we need to do something differently to actually crush this outbreak," says Auckland University Professor of Medicine Des Gorman.

Just over 4000 Aucklanders got tested on Sunday.

The Ministry of Health says this month it's tested around 14,000 essential workers including health staff, supermarket workers, staff from dairies, petrol station attendants and courier drivers and will soon start checking if people crossing the Auckland border have been tested.

But it is not proactively testing randomly in the community. Experts say we need to hunt out the pockets of hidden community transmission.  

"The best way to find out is community surveillance. The most obvious place to capture people is at the supermarkets," said Prof Gorman.

One of his colleagues agrees. 

"Ideally I would have a monitoring surveillance system that tests random members of our community - particularly in Auckland," said Dr Collin Tukuitonga, Associate Dean of Pacific Medical & Health Sciences.

The Government has identified seven suburbs of concern - Mt Eden, Massey, Favona, Ôtara, Papatoetoe, Mangere and Manurewa.

The Pak'nSave in Manukau borders several of those suburbs. In the space of just nine days, it has been listed as a location of interest on six occasions.

And shoppers saw the sense in expanding the focus. 

"Because that's the only reason they come out of their house or their bubble - you have to get food every day in order to feed your children," said Auckland resident Siu Toia.

There are, of course, several testing sites - but community leaders point out many simply don't have transport. 

"What I am hearing is that they don't have the ability and they want to get tested, so we need to find ways to get to those people," says councillor Alf Filipaino.

He'd like to see more mobile teams. 

"If it can be done with the food parcels, surely we can do that with the vaccination and testing."

There are 17 mystery cases in total, and that's what's stopping a drop down for Auckland. 

"If a case is out there and not found by contact tracing, if you take Auckland down alert levels you're taking the breaks off those clusters and they could flare up," explained Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker.

Prof Baker says a shift in the testing programme is needed, but he's more concerned about essential workers and would like to see testing of all people arriving at our hospitals. 

"I think that would be a great population to focus on, and again that's this sentinel testing or testing of asymptomatic people," he said.

And that makes sense. One of the mystery cases arrived at Middlemore Hospital on Saturday not realising they had COVID-19, but they were taken straight to the intensive care unit and seven people in their household have since tested positive.