State and local health officials aren’t exactly inspiring confidence in the way they’re handling testing for the coronavirus.
State officials said Tuesday they’re receiving more virus samples than they are able to process each day, while local officials didn’t answer The Gazette’s questions Tuesday about local testing capacity.
On Wednesday, a local hospital said it had enough coronavirus test kits but was prioritizing patients with severe symptoms.
The state isn’t to blame necessarily for this emerging bottleneck. A series of missteps at the federal level at the outbreak’s onset appear to have restricted the state’s ability to ramp up testing. A state official said Tuesday he’s concerned about depleting the supply of ingredients required to process the tests and determine test results.
“The supply chain right now is fragile because so many labs nationwide are bringing on and scaling up testing. This is a nationwide issue, not just Wisconsin,” said Dr. Allen Bateman, of the State Hygiene Lab at UW-Madison, during a news conference.
He said his lab is receiving “substantially” more coronavirus samples than the 400 samples the lab is able process each day.
Bateman expressed optimism testing capacity will improve eventually, but in the meantime, we worry these testing constraints could make it more difficult for local health departments and hospitals to identify a local outbreak.
The supply chain problem also could explain why officials are discouraging those with mild COVID-19 symptoms from being tested. As of Tuesday, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state Bureau of Communicable Diseases, recommended testing for only high-risk or hospitalized individuals with COVID-19 symptoms.
It makes sense to prioritize testing for people who come into contact with health care workers. But how is the state to get a firm grasp of the scope of the outbreak without testing people with mild symptoms? Wouldn’t people with mild symptoms be more likely to take seriously quarantine guidance if they knew for sure they had the virus? Shouldn’t the point of testing be to determine the disease’s spread, not just to identify the most severe cases?
Studies of other nation’s responses to the outbreak indicate the virus has been able to easily spread, in part, because of people exhibiting only mild or no symptoms unwittingly passing the virus to others.
We wanted to get more information about local testing capacity, but unfortunately the Rock County Health Department didn’t provide those details in response to a Gazette reporter’s question Tuesday.
Mercyhealth officials also didn’t provide clarity and, for instance, didn’t indicate where the hospital system’s new drive-thru testing facilities are located. As of now, people need a doctor’s order to be tested. But, ideally, anybody who wants a test would be able to get one and receive their results in a matter of hours.
Nations that have succeeded in minimizing their fatality rates and slowing the virus’ spread have implemented aggressive testing regimens. Some medical professionals have hailed South Korea’s response, noting it ramped up testing quickly and has been testing large swaths of its population.
We need local health agencies to speak candidly about testing capacity and whether they feel they have the capability to quickly identify an outbreak in Rock County. Rock County residents are counting on local officials to provide timely information and communicate any shortcomings in the testing process.