BYRON Bay sewage samples supposed to be tested for COVID-19 to detect any hidden cases were mistakenly frozen instead of refrigerated by council workers, rendering them useless.

The bungle has left the shire without sewage testing results for about a month amid new cases in New South Wales, North Coast Public Health director Paul Corben confirmed.

Tourists have flocked to Byron Bay.
Tourists have flocked to Byron Bay.

It comes as Byron is bustling with visitors, including Gold Coast tourists, who have been making the most of the festive period.

 

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Byron's Nicqui Yazdi, a shire resident known for her work with the Local Drug Action Team and Byron Underage Drinking and Drug Initiative, spoke out on Facebook, describing the situation as an "epic mess".

The revelation coincided with NSW announcing 10 new locally acquired cases on Thursday. Victoria announced it would close its border with NSW from 11:59pm on January 1 as it recorded its sixth active coronavirus case.

Byron Bay bustling on New Year’s Day.
Byron Bay bustling on New Year’s Day.

Ms Yazdi said: "I sent out a number of emails yesterday (Wednesday) and called around trying to clarify the lack of current reports for more than a month now on sewage testing at the two Byron plants on the official NSW Health Covid Surveillance site, and I received an email response last night from Wayne Jones, the chief executive of the Northern NSW Local Health District."

"Wayne confirmed what I had suspected, that yes, indeed there has been a massive stuff up, and NO covid tests have been conducted on samples from either of the Byron Shire sewage plants, because they froze the samples instead of refrigerating them, therefore rendering the samples useless," she said.

Dr Warish Ahmed taking sewage samples to test for COVID-19 at the Oxley Creek Resource Recovery Centre at Brisbane. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen
Dr Warish Ahmed taking sewage samples to test for COVID-19 at the Oxley Creek Resource Recovery Centre at Brisbane. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen

"This apparently was not discovered until they arrived at the NSW Health testing lab."

NSW Health and the local health district were contacted, as was Byron Shire Council.

The council did not respond to email or phone inquiries, but Mr Corben said "no results are available from the two Byron Shire testing locations since the week ending December 5".

"There are many logistical challenges for regional NSW in transporting samples to Sydney," he said.

"Sewage samples need to be received by the laboratory within certain timeframes and within a certain temperature range to ensure results are representative.

COVID-19 swab testing in Victoria. Picture: David Crosling
COVID-19 swab testing in Victoria. Picture: David Crosling

"An operational error at collection led to recent samples being frozen rather than refrigerated, and therefore not able to be analysed on receipt by NSW Health.

"North Coast Public Health Unit has issued clarifying guidance to council on the correct handling of specimens to avoid further problems with sample testing.

"Byron Shire Council has advised a sample was collected yesterday (Wednesday) and will be tested after reaching the laboratory in Sydney."

Mr Corben described sewage testing as an extra virus surveillance mechanism complimenting testing of residents and visitors.

North Coast Public Health director Paul Corben.
North Coast Public Health director Paul Corben.

Byron Shire has the highest testing rate per 1000 among NSW North Coast council areas over the past three weeks and throughout 2020, Mr Corben said.

There has been a "high level of testing" since mid-December, with more than 30 per cent of more than 12,500 tests analysed.

Meanwhile, Gold Coast Health has warned traces of COVID-19 have been detected in sewage at Merrimac wastewater treatment plant.

"This positive test result is concerning as it may indicate either a recovered case or undetected active cases living in or visiting the area," a statement read.

The health authority urged anyone with symptoms to get tested immediately.

"With the New South Wales cluster growing and new cases in Victoria, it's better to be safe than sorry."

Originally published as Virus testing bungle leaves tourism haven in the dark


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