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Opinion/Editorial: Virus response relies on prompt testing, results

Opinion/Editorial: Virus response relies on prompt testing, results

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Hospital capacity to treat victims of the coronavirus is only part of the challenge.

Also important are the capacity to administer an adequate number of COVID tests plus the ability to receive test results back promptly, in order to determine if the people tested actually do have the virus.

“We are seeing a huge, huge problem across the state with testing right now,” Thomas Jefferson Health District Director Denise Bonds told Charlottesville City Council early last week.

It’s taking 10 to 14 days to get test results back from commercial labs. That lag time makes the tests almost useless.

The lag is due to a combination of factors.

As people began re-entering society under Phase Three of the governor’s reopening plan, Virginia generally started to see an increase in cases or suspected cases. Add to that a clear surge of infections in eastern Virginia. Result: More tests began pouring into labs.

What’s more, in May and June, Virginia increased its capacity for administering tests, with the aim of detecting more coronavirus cases; now, labs were tasked with reading that increased number of tests.

So far, our description of such activity is limited to Virginia. But the picture is bigger than that.

Testing occurs among a network of state labs, local hospital labs and national commercial labs.

Dr. Bonds told the Council last week that the Thomas Jefferson area is fortunate to have the University of Virginia hospital, which is able to complete some testing. However, she said, UVa had begun to have difficulty obtaining some testing supplies and shortages appear to be redeveloping.

TJHD sends its tests to the state lab and as of last week was getting results back in just a few days. But, said Dr. Bonds, another (private) testing site in the Charlottesville area has been waiting up to 10 days for results — presumably because that provider is using commercial labs.

“That’s pretty pointless,” she said. “If it’s taking ten days to get a test result back, if you haven’t been staying home that whole time, you’ve been out potentially infecting lots of people. And it’s really difficult for us to do any contact tracing ten days out.”

And some states, instead of solely using state labs, also send their tests to the national companies.

Because they serve a nationwide clientele, when COVID cases surge in Florida, Texas, Arizona or elsewhere, the commercial labs are overwhelmed with submitted tests. That backs up the entire system — including any tests submitted by Virginia health professionals.

So even though Virginia as a whole might be doing fairly well in keeping the coronavirus under partial control, we can be jeopardized by irresponsible actions in other states.

When our tests can’t be processed in a timely manner, people can’t be quickly notified that they’re COVID-positive. They may continue to spread the virus for days.

As Dr. Bonds said, if contact tracers can’t get on the case quickly, opportunities may be lost to warn people to self-quarantine or get tested themselves.

Who can remember everyone they had contact with in the past two weeks? Odds improve, however, if you’re asked to remember the places you went and people you were in contact with over, say, the past five days.

Because contact tracing can be slowed by delay in test results, and delay in test results can result from infection surges far from Virginia, in a sense we are only as strong as our weakest link.

We truly are all in this together — from Central Virginia, to the rest of the commonwealth, to the country as a whole.

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As Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker eloquently expressed at a press conference on July 13, the coming return to in-person instruction and on-Grounds living this fall poses a significant threat to Charlottesville and its permanent residents.

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