By now, the basic advice around preventing the spread of novel coronavirus has been widely distributed: Stay home if you're sick, wash or sanitize your hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, and have your home emergency kit stocked. In an Oregon Public Health Division press briefing Monday, health officials also mentioned extra precautions, such as avoiding visiting relatives in nursing facilities and avoiding large gatherings.
Testing capacityAt the national level, confusion has abounded around the number of COVID-19 test kits available in various states. Oregon health officials said the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory, which began testing for novel coronavirus Feb. 28, had enough kits on hand to test 4,800 people as of Tuesday. Since last week, two private lab companies, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, have both come online as additional COVID-19 testing facilities, with more hospital labs gaining the capability to test soon. As testing capability increases, health officials expect more cases to emerge, OHA officials said Monday.
Last week, officials at the White House announced that the federal government hoped to deliver enough additional test kits around the country to be able to test an additional 1 million people. They later said they wouldn't meet that goal. The delay in producing more kits has been attributed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's decision to design its own kits rather than following World Health Organization guidelines, as ProPublica reported Feb. 28.
Health providers screen. Labs test.
"To be clear, St. Charles does not perform any tests," wrote Lisa Goodman, public information officer for St. Charles Health System in an email to the Source. "We collect the samples and send them to the state's public health lab for testing."
The "test kits" go to labs including Oregon's state lab, where they're used to test the specimens sent from providers around the state. As Goodman explained, "A nasopharyngeal collection kit is used to collect secretions from the back of your nose and upper throat. After the sample is collected, it's sent to a lab where it is tested for COVID-19. The diagnostic kits, or test kits, are developed by the CDC and provided to public health labs and some select international labs."
Goodman said the specimen kits St. Charles uses are not specific to novel coronavirus and can be used to detect any type of respiratory virus. So while labs may not yet have the supplies needed to test vast numbers of people in the event of a wider outbreak, local providers do have the tools they need to collect samples.
Not everyone gets tested
The current, relatively low testing capability has been alarming for some. Oregon has seen just 15 positive cases of COVID-19 and has tested over 200 people for novel coronavirus—but what if the number of people needing testing were to spike?
"The Oregon Health Authority continues to stress that not everyone needs to be tested," Goodman said. "It's very important to note that an individual cannot just show up and request a test. Patients have to meet CDC's clinical criteria for testing."
The CDC is advising medical providers to "use their best judgement" in deciding whether to test someone for novel coronavirus, saying they're "strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza." If someone tests negative for the flu and is showing symptoms of respiratory illness, the next step may be a screening for COVID-19.
Drop-ins not welcome
To minimize risk to others and to avoid overwhelming emergency departments, St. Charles and other health systems continue to encourage people to call ahead before showing up to be screened for respiratory illness.
"If someone thinks they might need to and they don't have a primary care doctor to consult with, calling the local health department is another good choice," Goodman wrote.
Oregon at 15 cases
On Tuesday, the number of presumed positive cases in Oregon expanded to 15, including a new case involving a person being treated at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, along with two cases in Jackson County, one in Klamath County and one each in Marion and Douglas counties. Washington County now has eight presumed positive cases. Three of the 15 sick people had engaged in international travel recently, according to the Oregon Health Authority. As of Monday, 52 people in Oregon were still awaiting COVID-19 test results, with 165 already testing negative.
Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in Oregon March 8. The declaration gives "OHA more freedom and flexibility to take specific actions to contain the outbreak," said OHA Director Patrick Allen. That includes preparing Oregon's medical reserve corps to mobilize if needed, expending telemedicine to screen patients without exposing health workers to potentially infected people and "finalizing agreements with major hospital systems to expand locations where COVID-19 tests can be conducted safely."
At a press briefing March 2, officials from Deschutes County Public Health said they would alert the public of any presumed positive cases as quickly as possible. State health officials have not alerted the public about the locations of any of the people in Oregon still awaiting test results, however.
Find local coronavirus information at: coemergencyinfo.blogspot.com or by calling 211.
-Intern Miina McCown contributed to this report.