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Washington health officials baffled by ‘strange’ new COVID testing guidance from CDC

A COVID testing site in Seattle. (Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new COVID-19 testing standards this week, advising against testing for people not presenting with symptoms of the virus, even if they’ve been previously exposed. In the wake of that decision, health experts both in Washington and across the United States have spoken out.

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“Of course not every asymptomatic person should be tested. But this is a strange recommendation from CDC in not recommending routine testing of close contacts of COVID-19 cases and leaving it to state and local public health officials,” King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said on Wednesday.

Researchers and health experts have voiced concerns in the past over the asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread of COVID-19. According to one study, roughly 50% of so-called “transmission events” derive from people not experiencing symptoms.

According to Gov. Jay Inslee, the CDC’s new guidance would cause Washington state “to miss thousands of new cases and allow the virus to spread in our communities.”

Beyond that, experts also worry that these new standards could hinder efforts to track the spread of the virus.

“This is a bad idea and I worry will hamper efforts at contact tracing,” Seattle Fred Hutchinson researcher Dr. Steve Pergam said. “Places that have had better control of the virus target more testing not less.”

Other officials with the Washington Department of Health say that the new guidance sends mixed messages on the efficacy of getting tested when you’re not experiencing symptoms.

“It’s unfortunate that it may have confused and clouded the message,” said Dr. Charissa Fotinos, the state’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer leading Washington’s statewide testing effort.

The Washington Department of Health issued a press release Wednesday afternoon, noting that the state’s own testing standards will remain the same, despite the CDC’s updated guidance, reiterating that “if you have symptoms, you need to get tested.”

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The CDC had previously advised local health departments to test people who have been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department sent local health officials an email Wednesday, clarifying that the guidance was revised “to reflect current evidence and the best public health interventions,” but did not detail the new evidence.

According to The New York Times, the CDC’s new testing guidance came directly from “higher-ups within the Trump administration,” with one official saying the guidelines were “not written by the CDC, but were imposed.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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