Why are providers still limiting COVID-19 testing?

The majority of the 8,000 kits send by the federal government ended up in the Puget Sound area

CLARK COUNTY — UPDATE: We have added the rate of Emergency Room visits and hospitalizations with COVID-like symptoms for this week, compared to last.

Two more confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday brought the total to six in Clark County. But Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public health officer, is sure there are far more cases than that.

Plenty of people online agree, with numerous posts popping up across social media from people who say they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, but have been told by their healthcare providers that tests are being reserved only for the very sick, or people considered high risk.

“The problem here in Southwest Washington is not the test so much as it is the supplies,” says Melnick.

Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health officer, speaks at a press conference on March 13. Photo by Mike Schultz
Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health officer, speaks at a press conference on March 13. Photo by Mike Schultz

With a difficult flu season already in high gear, the spread of COVID-19 has hospitals scrambling to find enough nasal swabs and viral transport media.

“We’ve had numerous conversations with healthcare providers, including the hospitals., and the issue has been the collection kits,” says Melnick. “It’s not because the labs don’t have the test, it’s because the healthcare providers don’t have the supplies.”

Chastell Ely, a spokesperson for The Vancouver Clinic confirmed Melnick’s diagnosis of the problem in an email.

“Due to limited supplies, we are only testing patients under strict criteria and provider’s discretion for those most at risk,” she wrote.

There are testing kits coming into the state, Melnick says. The federal government announced on Thursday that they were sending 8,000 testing kits to the state.

“And where’d they send them? They sent them all to the Puget Sound counties,” says Melnick.

“I get that’s where most of the cases are. They have a critical need up in the Puget Sound area,” he adds. “But if we’re gonna help flatten the curve and control the pandemic with whatever we can do in Clark County, it’s really important that we really get more testing done.”

According to data provided by the state, 2.7 percent of people visiting emergency departments in Clark County this week had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, up from 1.2 percent last week.

The trend was similar for people admitted for hospitalizations. 2.9 percent had symptoms such as fever, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, versus 1.3 percent last week.

It should be noted that those numbers could change, since this week isn’t over, and these are not necessarily confirmed cases of COVID-19, though they are often treated as such out of an abundance of caution, requiring more protective gear for hospital workers and isolation for the patients to prevent others from becoming infected.

In their release today announcing the two new positive tests, Melnick says they also included negative test results in order to dispel rumors that no testing was being done in the area.

“Now that the testing has been done in private labs and the University of Washington more than the state, we’re not aware of all the tests getting ordered,” he says, “but we can go into the state database and get updates on the number of negative tests.”

It’s not the most up-to-date figure, but it does give a sense that testing is happening.

While it’s frustrating to still be unable to test everyone who has symptoms, Melnick says it’s important to understand that a positive test isn’t necessary for everyone. 

“We want people with mild symptoms to stay home because we don’t want them out in public where they may infect other people,” he says, adding that they should stay home until at least 72 hours after their fever is gone and they feel better.

“The other reason for those people not going to the doctor to get tested about mild symptoms is there’s a lot of other things that can cause these mild respiratory symptoms,” Melnick adds, “and doctor’s places and emergency rooms are places where other people with COVID-19 might be.”

That means, especially when your immune system is already fighting an infection, you might be at greater risk if you are exposed to the virus causing COVID-19.

It’s also important, he adds, to help keep emergency rooms and doctors freed up to deal with serious cases, in which people are high risk, or unable to breath well enough that they need medical care.

Other supplies needed

It’s not just testing kits that are in short supply.  Hospitals are also in serious need of masks and gloves. 

“We are asking businesses who use this equipment—such as construction companies, veterinary clinics, nail salons, and dental offices—to donate,” wrote Ely. “Individuals are also encouraged to drop off sealed boxes of masks and gloves from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Weekdays at our Administration office located at 13898 NE 28th Street Vancouver, WA 98682.”

Even with more labs available to test for COVID-19, most Clark County hospitals still lack supplies to collect samples for testing. Stock photo.
Even with more labs available to test for COVID-19, most Clark County hospitals still lack supplies to collect samples for testing. Stock photo.

Other hospitals are taking the DIY approach.

Providence St. Joseph, in the Seattle area, has put out the call for people who are able to sew to help make masks for healthcare workers to use.

The 100 Million Mask Challenge prompted an outpouring of response. As of this writing, all of the kits the hospital was providing to crafters had been claimed, but a number of other groups have popped up online, offering to make masks for healthcare professionals, as well as their own friends and family.

Governor and Guard dispel rumors

For the past several days, rumors have circulated online that the National Guard might shut down the I-5 and I-205 bridges in the event of a shelter-in-place order.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a press conference on March 16. Photo courtesy Gov. Jay Inslee’s office
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a press conference on March 16. Photo courtesy Gov. Jay Inslee’s office

Both Governor Jay Inslee and the Washington National Guard have taken to their own social media channels to deny the rumor.

“While fighting COVID-19, we must also fight against rumors and false information,” the governor wrote on March 14. “Let me be clear: Neither me nor my staff are engaged in conversations to quarantine or seal off any part of Washington state.”

Via Twitter

The Twitter account for the Washington National Guard also responded to the rumors on Thursday in a tweet shared by the governor:

“Emergencies are scary enough. Let’s not add to the fear by spreading misinformation. 

@WANationalGuard is your neighbor, your friend and we want what’s best for our communities – we live here too. Let’s put aside the rumors about martial law or military rule. IT’S JUST NOT TRUE.”

Via Twitter

So far, the governor has given no indication that he will follow the lead of California in issuing a shelter-in-place order, but he has said there are discussions for how to do that, should it be deemed necessary.

You can find more information on the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak here.

Clark County Public Health is updating it’s website daily with the latest information as well.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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