30K Coronavirus Tests A Day Could Be The Ticket To Washington’s Freedom

A Washington Army National Guard soldier consults instructions while assembling a Covid-19 test kit at a state warehouse in Tumwater. The National Guard is currently helping to assemble 30,000 kits for distribution to local public health agencies.
A Washington Army National Guard soldier consults instructions while assembling a Covid-19 test kit at a state warehouse in Tumwater. The National Guard is currently helping to assemble 30,000 kits for distribution to local public health agencies. CREDIT: Washington Military Department

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BY ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH & AUSTIN JENKINS

More testing will allow Washington state to relax some social distancing measures, because we’ll be able to identify sick people early and keep them isolated. Here’s how we can get there.

If you feel sick and think it’s COVID-19, how quickly can you get tested for the virus?

Until last week, if you had close contact with a COVID-19 positive person, but developed no symptoms, you may have been told to just stay home. Now the state is recommending even some asymptomatic people be tested.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has said increasing testing of people with COVID-19 symptoms, and their close contacts, is one of five key indicators required to ease strict social distancing measures.

More testing of the virus is vital for Washington to reopen, state officials say.

Testing tracks the novel coronavirus in action, rather than antibody testing, which shows where it may have been. It gives state officials an eye on the infection and where it might be spreading through the community, and it helps the state put the genie back in the bottle.

“All the cases that we are detecting right now are not likely to be all the cases that are occurring out there,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer, at a recent media briefing. “That’s why we need to increase the amount of testing we’re doing, so that we can be detecting more of the cases.”

Health authorities can take the appropriate next step — such as reaching out to close contacts and telling them to isolate or quarantine themselves — once testing identifies who has COVID-19.

“It’s a critical enabler of our containment strategies,” said Reed Schuler, the governor’s senior policy advisor.

Gov. Inslee wants Washington to run 20,000 to 30,000 tests per day. The biggest hurdle is a short supply of needed testing materials across the state. Healthcare providers have sought their own sources for supplies, and now the state is playing back up to fill in the gaps.

“Our strategy overall is to make available testing as early as possible, shortly after someone develops symptoms, have that test collected, submitted to a lab, and have that lab return it within 24-48 hours so any public health action, which might include isolation or reaching contacts and asking them to quarantine can happen,” said Dr. Charissa Fotinos, the deputy chief medical officer at the Health Care Authority who is leading the state’s testing strategy.

Here are four things we’re going to need to get there.

More supplies

Big picture, state officials say they’re on track to having 2.5 million test kits available in the next 12 weeks.

“On paper, we should be able to get adequate supplies in,” Fotinos said. The state especially wants to build capacity by the time flu season begins.

The question is whether all of the needed materials – such as swabs and vials – will actually arrive on schedule.

Indiana gubernatorial candidate Dr. Woody Myers takes a COVID-19 test at Aria Diagnostics in Indianapolis. CREDIT: Michael Conroy/AP

Indiana gubernatorial candidate Dr. Woody Myers takes a COVID-19 test at Aria Diagnostics in Indianapolis. CREDIT: Michael Conroy/AP

“Even when we’re sometimes told by a company that they expect their daily output to be X, Y or Z, they reach out and say, ‘Oh, well, we can’t get that reagent we thought we could get,’” Fotinos said.

Now, the federal government is pledging to send supplies.

On Tuesday the state got enough swabs to test 37,000 people. In May and June the state expects to get enough swabs to test 580,000 people per month, with shipment arriving weekly.

“In every state, we will have more than enough lab testing supplies for people to support their testing goal,” said Brad Smith, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in a CDC briefing for laboratory professionals this week.

Gov. Inslee hailed the federal supplies as an “important and welcome step.”

Swabs are one important piece of a test kit. The feds are also sending vials to put the swabs in once they’ve been up a nose (though, not enough for every swab).

And the state still lacks enough biohazard bags to put the collected specimens in. The supplies the state is acquiring will go to local public health departments “to fill in the gaps” in private testing – for instance when there’s a COVID-19 outbreak at a long-term care facility, farmworker housing or a meatpacking plant. The state is also helping supply some testing for people without insurance.

Test more people

Current state guidance is that anyone with symptoms can get tested, but because test supplies are limited, only certain symptomatic populations get priority. They in