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State-funded COVID testing sites close in Victoria as free RATs offered instead of PCRs

State-funded PCR testing centres will stop operating in Victoria today as hospitals close their COVID screening clinics.

While the funding has stopped for PCR testing sites, residents will be able to access free Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) from community centres such as libraries and council service centres.

Bendigo Health Public Health Unit nurse Veronica Steegs said the main way for Victorians to get a PCR test would be to get a referral from their GP to get tested at a pathology centre.

She said most people were now able to self-test with RATs and self-treat their COVID-19 symptoms.

"The PCR testing is for the vulnerable and high risk people in the community," she said.

"You can still get antiviral [treatment] if you test positive on a RAT."

Demand still high

Grampians Public Health Unit chief strategy and regions officer Robert Grenfell said the health service had been continuing to grapple with high COVID-19 cases during the holiday period.

"The official figures show about 700 people in hospital in Victoria with COVID at the moment," Dr Grenfell said.

"Many of us in the [Grampians] community have, or are recovering from, a recent bout of COVID-19 – and it's a reminder to all of us that if you are sick, test, if you have it, isolate."

Dr Grenfell said PCR testing would still be available from the region's busy general practitioners.

"We've been distributing RATS to the vulnerable populations … particularly people with financial stress, and that has helped a lot," he said.

"So that is going to help into the future, but if you need a PCR, you are going to need to first report your positive RAT."

Staff returned from retirement

Since January 2021, 624,000 PCR tests have been administered by Bendigo Health staff. 

Meg Trantor has worked in administration at the PCR screening clinics over the past three years. 

"The most we did was 1,700 in one day, in 40-degree heat in PPE. It was very intense," she said. 

Ms Steegs said the team had grown and changed a lot over the three years.

At times it included retired nurses, student nurses and allied health staff working extra shifts. 

"A lot of staff came back from retirement to help us out. They've left now, but they were a pivotal point. We are so appreciative of their effort," Ms Steegs said. 

She said staying cool on hot days had been a challenge.

"[We had] lots of hydrolyte icy poles in breaks and ice packs under our armpits," she said.

The staff would rotate every 45 minutes on hot days so they could hydrate, as they were not allowed to drink water while working in their PPE. 

"You're not allowed to touch anything to have a drink," Ms Steegs said. 

"When you're doing it day after day, seven days a week, it takes a toll."

Bendigo Health Nurse Michelle McGibbon said the closure of the COVID screening clinic made it feel as though the job was done when it came to the emergency management of COVID-19.

"It's proving people are capable, through education and vaccination, to manage this," she said.

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