As surely as COVID-19 has made its way up the Hunter Valley, so has the demand for testing.
But with many privately run drive-through testing centres in the Hunter closed this week, and local hospital clinics operating on limited hours, the demand is fuelling a RAT hunt in the valley. As a result, finding supplies of do-it-yourself rapid antigen test kits has become harder.
And according to the state Member for Upper Hunter, Dave Layzell, the shortage is likely to get worse before it improves.
The Scone Discount Pharmacy sold out of RAT kits a week before Christmas, and owner Ben Butters is not sure when new supplies will arrive.
"It's frustrating, it's all I can say," said Mr Butters.
The pharmacist has had to put a message on the business' phone system, explaining no kits are in stock.
"I reckon we were getting hundreds of calls a day," Mr Butters said.
Further down the valley, at Blooms The Chemist in Singleton Heights, staff are receiving about 250 calls a day from RAT hunters. But that business also has no kits for sale.
"Everybody wants them," said manager Helen Gay.
Just near the pharmacy, a drive-through testing clinic was operating at Alroy Oval. But the facility is temporarily closed. A spokesman for 4Cyte Pathology, which operates the facility, said he was not sure when it would reopen, but "hopefully at the end of next week".
Singleton Mayor Cr Sue Moore is keenly waiting for the clinic to reopen.
Councillor Moore said some residents in the Singleton Local Government Area had been driving to Maitland, Newcastle "or beyond" for COVID tests.
"I don't think that's fair at all," said Cr Moore, adding it was not fair on the other LGAs, "and it's not fair for Singleton people to have that impost".
In the Upper Hunter LGA, the clinic at Scone's hospital clinic has been operating for a couple of hours each day. Dozens have been tested daily, with numbers up to about 190.
Upper Hunter Shire councillor Maurice Collison has been watching the COVID numbers climb, with his LGA recording 34 new cases on Friday, and he has said the testing locally "has been a struggle".
But with COVID case numbers higher down the valley, Cr Collison said he would be reluctant to travel to Newcastle, for instance, unless he had a good reason to.
"You don't go into a yard with a bull unless you have to," Cr Collison said.
At the healthSAVE Muswellbrook Pharmacy, Andrew Ballantyne had 10 RAT kits arrive last week.
"They were sold within about half an hour," the pharmacist said. Although he has no kits to sell, Mr Ballantyne and his staff are fielding up to 20 requests an hour.
"People are aware of the situation," he said. "It's just disappointing we can't get access [to supplies]. Our hands are tied."
In Dungog, the Williams Valley Pharmacy has no RAT kits. The last delivery of 10 kits was about a month ago.
"They were gone straight away, and since then we've been trying [to restock] every single day," said pharmacist Sam Chriba.
Down the road, Lovey's Grocers IGA store had about 60 RAT packs on Friday afternoon, but manager Caroline Andrews didn't expect them to be on the shelves for long.
"It's not crazy but constant," she said of the sales.
Dungog did have a drive-through testing facility, but mayor John Connors said it closed late last year, and since then residents had been heading to Raymond Terrace or Maitland to "join the queue". Councillor Connors said "it would be good" to have the testing clinic return, "but, more importantly, I think the supplies of rapid antigen tests are critical".
State MP Dave Layzell has been working with his federal counterparts to boost access to kits. He said while more supplies were coming, the numbers to meet current demand were at least two weeks away.
"I'd be lying to say it's not going to get worse before it gets better," he said.
Mr Layzell said it was important for governments to get their policy settings right. But circumstances kept changing and, with a new COVID variant in the midst of a holiday season, "there's no way we were expecting the numbers of people who wanted to get tested".
Having observed the queues at clinics, and the search for RAT kits, Mr Layzell said what was available was "far, far insufficient" to meet current demand.
"I think we've got a lot of challenges ahead," he said.
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