Free rapid antigen test kits will be handed out to anyone who requests one at Victorian libraries and council-run services to help detect COVID-19 in the community.

The tests were being provided to people who had symptoms or were considered close contacts at state-run COVID testing sites, but these have since closed and PCR tests now require a GP referral.

Rapid antigen tests will now be free for all Victorians at council sites such as libraries.Credit:Justin McManus

The kits are also being distributed to people aged over 70, people with a disability and concession cardholders at 200 council-run sites, but on Tuesday Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas made the tests available to everyone. The state government plans to spend $1.1 billion on rapid tests this financial year.

Rapid tests will no longer be handed out at schools and students and staff will need to get them from council-run sites.

Victorians will be able to take two packets of RATs, which usually contain five tests. Some packets might have 10 tests in them.

Seniors and people with a disability or their carers will be able to take four packets, or a total of at least 20 free tests.

“All Victorians can now pick up two free packets of rapid antigen tests to ensure they can enjoy their summer safely with their loved ones,” Thomas said.

“There are simple things people can do to enjoy the summer safely – take a test if you have symptoms, stay home if you’re sick, wear a high-quality mask if you can’t physically distance, talk to your GP to see if you’re eligible for antivirals and stay up to date with your vaccinations.”

Australian Medical Association Victorian president Dr Roderick McRae supported the move, saying the return of school would be the next potential source of stress for the state. He encouraged people to wear masks when social distancing was not possible.

Victorian Council of Social Service chief executive Emma King said removing the price barrier to testing for COVID-19 would help to protect the state.

“Ongoing suppression measures like this are critical to protect the most vulnerable in our community,” she said.

Rapid tests have become the primary tool for diagnosing COVID-19.

The XBF strain of the coronavirus now constitutes the bulk – 35 per cent – of transmissions in Victoria, according to Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton. BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 make up another 16 per cent and BR.2 represents 14 per cent of new cases.

“A group of variants that cannot be classified due to new mutations made up 17 per cent of wastewater detections,” Sutton said.

The subvariant XBB.1.5, which has spread through the US, has also been detected through genomic testing.

New COVID-19 infections in Victoria dropped 37.2 per cent last week to a seven-day total of 4912 after rising in November and December. There were 156 deaths in the state last week.

On Friday, 324 people were in hospital with the virus, including 14 people in intensive care.

“There continue to be positive signs the sustained peak of the November-December wave has passed, with COVID cases and hospitalisations declining again this week,” Sutton said on Friday.

“Sadly, COVID-related deaths have increased again. As flagged in previous updates, an increase in reported deaths was expected following recent periods of high transmission in the community.”

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