Testing, testing, testing.
It’s the key, experts say, to relaxing stay-at-home orders and getting people back to work.
Deployed on a massive scale, testing would enable health officials to quickly identify those carrying COVID-19, isolate them and contact and quarantine anyone they came in contact with. Catching outbreaks early and containing them will prevent the virus from spreading uncontrollably throughout the community.
This blueprint for suppressing coronavirus makes a great deal of sense, and has been successfully deployed in other countries, such as South Korea.
But I’m increasingly pessimistic about the United States and its ability to implement a similar testing regimen.
Months into a pandemic with no end in sight, our testing capabilities are nowhere near where they ought to be.
New York has ramped up its COVID-19 testing significantly, but still falls short of the level experts say is needed for a safe reopening. There’s more testing being done in the Capital Region, but counties still aren’t testing at the level they’d like and the gap between what they’re doing and what they want to do is substantial.
“Every week it’s getting better, but we’re still not at the point where we can test everyone,” Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman told me. He added, “We’re all struggling with the supply chain piece.”
Nationally, experts say COVID-19 testing has to double or triple before America can safely reopen.
One analysis, from the health-and-medicine-focused news site STAT and a research team at Harvard University, suggests that more than half of U.S. states, including New York, are doing too little testing.
New York has been averaging just over 20,000 tests a day since mid-April; the STAT/Harvard analysis says that the state should be administering 130,000 tests a day, a calculation based on the size of its outbreak.
It’s discouraging to realize how far away we are from this goal.
And while it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much more testing the Capital Region ought to be doing, the county officials I spoke with all agree that a lot more needs to be done.
Some officials had specific targets, while others spoke more generally about wanting to be able to test a much wider swath of the community. Their comments were telling: Even now, testing everyone who meets the criteria for a COVID-19 test remains a challenge.
“We’d like to be able to test everybody who wants to be tested or needs to be tested,” Rich Crist, Rensselaer County’s operations director, told me.
To that end, the county has set a goal of acquiring 5,000 more test kits for residents – a number Crist described as “a good start” that will “give us a good read as to where we’re at.”
According to the New York State Department of Health’s COVID tracker, over 3,500 Rensselaer County residents have been tested for the virus as of Friday, with 311 testing positive.
In Saratoga County, Saratoga Hospital is now testing about 300 people each day, an increase, according to county health director Cathi Duncan, from “just a week ago. That feels good.”
Right now, people who have COVID-19 symptoms, have been in close contact with someone who tested positive, or are considered essential workers are eligible for testing in New York.
Unfortunately, not everyone who would benefit from testing qualifies under that criteria.
One group that’s likely to fall through the cracks, according to Duncan: Those who carry the active virus in their body but lack symptoms. The concern is that these people unwittingly transmit COVID-19 because they don’t realize they have it. More testing might identify these “silent spreaders,” and make them aware of the risk they pose to others.
Ideally, Duncan would like to see 18,000 Saratoga County residents tested each month – roughly a quarter of the county’s population.
“That’s a pretty good snapshot,” she said. “We do want to do more. We’d love to be like South Korea.”
In March, Ellis Medicine in Schenectady suspended most COVID-19 testing because supplies were running low, and many county residents went to the University at Albany to get tested.
Last week, Schenectady County and Ellis began offering walk up/drive through testing at the hospital’s McClellan Street campus and two pop-up sites, Mont Pleasant Middle School and Washington Irving Education Center. According to Philip Schwartz, a spokesman for Ellis, the hospital had tested 589 people at these mobile sites as of Friday.
“The drive in and walk through sites are the best way to gain a picture of what’s going on in the community,” Erin Roberts, a spokeswoman for Schenectady County, explained.
That’s a worthy goal, and it’s been made more difficult by stumbles at the federal level.
The first round of tests sent out by the Centers for Disease Control in February were faulty, and the U.S. has been behind on testing ever since. The ongoing shortage has left local officials scrambling to get a handle on how COVID-19 is affecting their communities.
The U.S. is testing more people than ever before, and that’s great.
But we’re still haunted by the testing mistakes of the past.
I hope we correct them before it’s too late.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.