Why Nathan Turner is still listed as COVID-19 case
MYSTERY will probably always surround whether Blackwater coal miner Nathan Turner had COVID-19 when he died.
The 30-year-old remains one of Queensland's 1059 known cases of the novel coronavirus after he tested positive following his death at his Blackwater home on May 26, a result later verified by a senior microbiologist in Brisbane.
However, he's no longer listed as the youngest Australian to have died from COVID-19 after subsequent tests ordered by the coroner were negative for the virus.
"While the death has been removed, the total cases for Queensland remains at 1,059," Queensland Health said in a media release.
"This is because the case is consistent with the national definition of a confirmed COVID-19 case."
Since the coroner's findings were made public, the original positive test for the novel coronavirus performed on swabs taken from Mr Turner following his death has been described as a bungle, significant mistake, misdiagnosis and a false positive.
Queensland's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young admits Mr Turner's case could be a rare instance of a "false positive".
"It is extremely rare to get a false positive, but extremely rare things happen," she said.
"If you test enough people who are negative, we will get a false positive. That's just the maths. No test is 100 per cent accurate."
While doctors, nurses and contact tracers have been hailed as "heroes" during the coronavirus pandemic, the work of other health workers, such as medical laboratory scientists has largely gone unnoticed and unheralded.
Yet it's pathology testing, as well as contact tracing, that Dr Young credits with keeping the virus contained in Queensland, which can boast results in controlling the pandemic that are among the best in the world.
More than 200,000 tests for the novel coronavirus have been performed in Queensland since late January.
In Mr Turner's case, his death renders any chance of knowing whether the initial test result was a false positive impossible to determine.
Dr Young has described the test as a GeneXpert test, an automated polymerase chain reaction test designed to pick up the genetic sequence of the virus. The results are usually available within an hour.
University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay said experience in post-mortem testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was still emerging.
"Perhaps we still have some evaluation to do in the area of post-mortem testing," he said.
Dr Young has speculated that the test performed on Mr Turner, who had experienced about four weeks of flu-like symptoms, may have been a false positive for COVID-19 because of "cross reactivity with other coronaviruses".
In other words, he may have been ill with another type of coronavirus.
But there is another scientific explanation.
Dr Young said it was possible that by the time additional tests were performed for the coroner "a few days" after the coal miner's death, any virus in the samples may have deteriorated to the point of being undetectable.
"Unfortunately, we know at that stage that the tests could be negative because the virus has denatured during that time," she said.
Mr Turner, who is understood to have suffered from seizures, had a complex medical history and the coroner is yet to determine how he died.
Since his death, more than 600 Blackwater residents have been tested for the new virus, with no positive results.
While apologising to the Turner family for any extra grief the discrepancies in testing have caused, Health Minister Steven Miles defended Dr Young and his department for their handling of the situation.
The rapid response to what was then a positive case of COVID-19 in a Queensland outback community for the first time was mobilised to protect other Blackwater residents, and ultimately the rest of the state, from the virus.
"Our ability to control this virus requires us to respond rapidly to every single positive test," he said. "We have to treat every positive test as though it is a positive case."
Associate Professor Mackay also backed the Queensland Health response.
"In my opinion, the process set out to protect the health and wellbeing of regional Queenslanders under the threat of a fast-moving pathogen, given the facts at the time," he said.
"These facts included at least one person with symptoms supporting a diagnosis of COVID-19 and a positive lab test result. To wait for too long could have meant more infections, some of which we know can be serious and occasionally deadly."
Originally published as Why Nathan Turner is still listed as COVID-19 case