Medium and large employers in the meat, seafood processing, poultry, supermarket and refrigerated distribution sectors will be asked to test a quarter of their workforce each week.
Catherine Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said asymptomatic testing should also be offered to people who have visited potential exposure sites.
These sites are regularly updated on the Health Department’s website and can include supermarkets, food outlets and train stations.
“I would think we are at a point now where people who were there without symptoms could be tested,” Dr Bennett said. “That’s where I’d like to see the asymptomatic testing come in.”
She said targeted asymptomatic testing and screening of high-risk workplaces would help Victoria adjust to a “COVID normal” and drive up testing rates as case numbers remained low.
University of Melbourne professor of epidemiology Tony Blakely said testing resources could be redeployed as the number of cases declined and all those considered close contacts were being tested.
“Everything here is a balance of resources and effectiveness,” he said.
Professor Blakely said extending testing eligibility to people who had been at exposure sites during specific times when they might have encountered someone with coronavirus would be a “sensible, incremental step”.
“If nothing else you want to keep your testing capacity high to not only maximise the chance of finding cases … but just to keep the machinery oiled and ticking over.”
A testing blitz will begin in Anglesea this week after fragments of coronavirus were detected in wastewater. Anyone with symptoms has been urged to get tested.
Carlton GP Ralph Audehm said Victorians who have visited potential exposure sites should be allowed to take a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether they develop symptoms. He said this would increase test results as the amount of virus in the community declined.
“They are saying we don’t have enough people who are sick being tested but we know there are people who don’t get symptoms,” he said.
“If they need to increase testing and there are a pool of asymptomatic carriers, we need to be offering it to everyone who wants it.”
Testing is currently largely limited to people with symptoms, returned travellers or those who are considered close contacts of confirmed cases.
The Casey cluster prompted a plea from authorities for anyone in the surrounding area to get tested even if their symptoms were very mild.
A Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman confirmed that rideshare drivers were being asked to get tested if they live or work in Melbourne’s south-east as part of a “targeted and time limited initiative”.
They will be tested “regardless of symptoms”.
The Health Department is also involved in a pilot with the Doherty Institute that has started using saliva tests to screen officers at three police stations in Melbourne, Bendigo and Dandenong.
It pools saliva samples from a few officers and if the pool tests negative, there is no need to test individuals. If the pool tests positive, everyone is tested.
Barwon Health director of infectious diseases, Eugene Athan, said asymptomatic testing in high-risk workplaces would also be an effective prevention measure.
“I think that should be given consideration where you do weekly surveillance,” he said.
However, Professor Athan said the asymptomatic testing would most probably need to be funded by the industries themselves.
The south-west Victorian town of Colac has fought to contain two large outbreaks in recent months. One outbreak was connected with the Australian Lamb Company abattoir while the other was linked to the Bulla Dairy Foods.
Shane Vicary, chief executive of AKD Softwoods in Colac, said asymptomatic testing could prove crucial in preventing outbreaks in large workplaces that had the potential to spread rapidly in the town.
Mr Vicary said he would welcome asymptomatic testing at his workplace, which has had one case of coronavirus earlier this year that was prevented from spreading any further.
“If we can prevent the next outbreak we can protect our freedom,” he said.
Mr Vicary, who was central to a community campaign to contain the virus, described asymptomatic testing in high-risk workplaces as a “pre-emptive strategy” much like precautionary cholesterol tests when visiting a doctor.
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.
Senior Reporter at The Age