Q&A: How do walk-in Covid-19 testing centres work?

Pop-up test centres aim to detect asymptomatic cases in areas with high rates of Covid

Members of the National Ambulance Service working at a walk-in Covid-19 test centre on the grounds of Grangegorman Primary Care Centre in Dublin. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Members of the National Ambulance Service working at a walk-in Covid-19 test centre on the grounds of Grangegorman Primary Care Centre in Dublin. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

Five walk-in Covid-19 testing centres aimed at picking up asymptomatic cases in areas with high rates of the disease opened on Thursday.

Four of the pop-up centres, where no prior appointment is needed, are located in Dublin, and another is in Co Offaly at Tullamore Leisure Centre. So what do they involve and who can avail of them?

What are these walk-in testing centres?

Just that: centres where anyone can simply walk in and have a Covid-19 test. No booking required, no explanation needed. In fact, if you actually have any Covid-19 symptoms, then these centres are not the place for you. Walk-in centres, operated by the Health Service Executive (HSE) in co-operation with the National Ambulance Service, are intended for random population testing in problem areas.

But why? What’s it all about?

The idea is to try to get a grip on significant outbreaks of the disease in the community and catch it early. It is part of what the HSE calls “enhanced Covid-19 testing”. Prof Mary Horgan, who is a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team, said on Saturday up to half of the people with the variant first discovered in the UK can be asymptomatic. Testing asymptomatic walk-ins should help detect positive cases early and get them out of circulation, all in a bid to break the chain of transmission.

So they would have to test a lot of people then?

Yes. Each centre can carry out between 300 and 500 swabs every day between 11am and 7pm.

But who would volunteer themselves for a test?

Plenty of people it seems. Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE’s national lead for testing and tracing, said that 1,722 were tested at walk-in centres on the first day of testing last Thursday, 2,154 on Friday and 1,873 on Saturday. The HSE was expecting between 300 and 500 people swabbed at one centre each day. Tallaght swabbed 539 people on Friday but the other centres tested in the HSE’s expected range, an encouraging sign of public interest. The fact that large numbers of young people turned up was also welcomed.

But what happens if too many people turn up?

At their launch, it was difficult to estimate demand, but the HSE has advised that if waiting times are too long for people, then they can come back later. On Thursday, the State’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said there was a “very significant” uptake in all five centres. In fact, additional staff were assigned to Grangegorman Primary Care Centre to try and reduce waiting times from 40 minutes to 20 minutes.

Are the tests catching asymptomatic cases?

Yes, as of Friday evening, preliminary figures showed a positivity rate of between 1 and 2 per cent out of the more than 1,700 swabs taken on Thursday across all five centres, but the Blanchardstown and Tullamore centres had a higher rate of infection at more than 2 per cent. The overall positivity rate across the five centres is higher than the serial testing carried out by the HSE in meat plants, mental health and disability facilities, and nursing homes. This makes sense given that the pop-up centres are targeting Covid-19 hotspots, so it is no surprise that walk-in testing would catch a higher rate of symptom-free cases of the virus among random people dropping in from those areas.

Where are the test centres exactly?

Five opened in high-infection rate areas on Thursday for a one-week period, and then we’ll see what happens. They are in the National Aquatic Centre, Blanchardstown, Dublin 15; Tallaght Stadium, Dublin 24; Irishtown Stadium, Dublin 4; Grangegorman Primary Care Centre car park beside the Technological University Dublin campus; and Tullamore Leisure Centre in Offaly.

Four in Dublin and one in Tullamore? What about my area, will there be more?

That’s the plan; the HSE is adopting a sort of “where and when they are needed” approach as cases spike. Its public health specialist Dr Miriam Owens said they would evaluate them on a daily basis, with the plan very much to set them up again. You might argue it is not the kind of service you want, however, given they are ultimately placed in high-contagion areas. “Where there are spots, black spots as we call them, [these] are the best places to put them,” Dr Owens said. “We go where the greatest need is and that is where the greatest risk of disease is at the moment.”

I’m almost tempted myself. Can I go?

Of course you can, so long as you live within 5km of the centre. If so, you must be at least 16, have no symptoms – that one is obviously important – and have not tested positive for Covid-19 within the last six months. Bring ID and give them your phone number so they can follow up.

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