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State’s testing leader says not to use COVID test as ‘safety check’ for the holidays

In this Nov. 18, 2020, file photo, people line up to be tested for coronavirus at a free testing site in Seattle. With coronavirus cases surging and families hoping to gather safely for Thanksgiving, long lines to get tested have reappeared across the U.S. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Testing has been and remains an important part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is not the entire answer, says Dr. Charissa Fotinos, deputy director of the Washington State Health Care Authority and the state’s leader on COVID-19 testing.

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In a briefing with state health officials Wednesday, Dr. Fotinos urged everyone to heed social distancing measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and continue to limit gatherings.

“That said, we continue to see an increase in testing above our prior numbers,” she said.

On average, Fotinos says there are about 22,000-24,000 tests being done per day statewide. That number does not include antigen tests, which are reported separately. With the increase in testing, there has been an increase in the positivity rate as well, Fotinos added.

Some testing sites, in Seattle and elsewhere, have reported longer wait times, but Fotinos says that turnaround times are still under or near two days, including for the national commercial labs. She is not aware of any bottlenecks or major delays, only mentioning that some skilled nursing facilities have expressed that they are struggling to keep the number of tests they need for routine checks, but the Washington State Department of Health has plans to help.

Knowing that there is a high demand for COVID testing, one reporter asked about the state’s testing strategy moving forward and if there are enough supplies and capacity to increase testing?

Fotinos admitted her answer may be unsatisfactory in that “it depends,” but went on to emphasize the importance of reserving tests for those who have symptoms or have had a close contact with someone who is infected with COVID-19.

“We’ve heard from some health care systems that they’re being inundated with requests for people who want to be tested so they can go celebrate at the holidays,” she said. “They don’t have an exposure, they have no symptoms, but they want to get tested to be checked so that they’re safe to go.”

That, Fotinos says, is not necessarily a great strategy as testing only tells you whether or not virus was detected on the day you were tested.

“There has to be enough virus to be detected, the test has to be performed properly, and processed properly. [When] all those things are aligned, all that tells you is ‘I don’t have a detectable level of virus today,'” she said. “Doesn’t mean that in a day or two if you were exposed, you know, a week ago, that you don’t develop symptoms and become infectious.”

People who absolutely should get tested for COVID-19 are those who have symptoms, and anyone who has had contact with a person who has COVID-19.

“In an ideal world, if we have testing readily available at every corner, we would want everyone to get tested. That would give us more information,” Dr. Fotinos said.

As far as whether or not the state has enough testing supplies, Fotinos says part of it is local and depends on what the capacity is of a community to test both at drive-through settings or in providers’ offices.

“We want people to get tested with symptoms and close contacts. We want people who are in congregate settings to be tested, especially those who are working in skilled nursing facilities or facilities where other folks who might have underlying health conditions or vulnerabilities live,” she said. “But we also don’t want to strain what is a finite capacity … just testing to reassure ourselves that we’re OK. It’s not going to tell us we’re OK in a week; it might tell us we’re OK in a day or two.”

“We’re asking a lot of people. We’re asking people to forego their holiday plans, to stay away from their friends and family, and really, right now, to reserve the tests for people who have symptoms and who are close contacts, or if you’re concerned you’re a contact,” she added. “But not to get a ‘it’s OK to go out and about’ safety check.”

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Find a list of testing sites through the state DOH here. King County’s list of sites is available here.

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