Local experts discuss COVID-19 testing availability

Sunday, March 22, 2020

As more cases of coronavirus are confirmed in Iowa and across the country, many people are wondering if they have the virus and asking what they can do to get tested. Conflicting information from across the country has added to the confusion.

“The first question anyone should ask when considering if they should get tested for coronavirus is if they have traveled to an area with ongoing spread of the virus, or if they have come into close personal contact with some who has tested positive,” said Dr. Stephanie Johnson, pathologist and medical director of Spencer Hospital’s Laboratory. “If you happen to meet these criteria, then you need to assess yourself for symptoms of coronavirus including a fever over 100.4 degrees, cough, and shortness of breath. People who have met the contact criteria and have symptoms should call their physician’s office for further evaluation and to determine if they need testing.

She emphasized, “If at any time you should develop difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in your chest, confusion, or bluish lips or face, you should call 911 or your local emergency department and seek medical attention immediately.”

Besides the criteria for individual testing, there has been a significant amount of media attention given to local and national availability of testing.

“Locally, we have the supplies needed to collect samples from people who meet the criteria for testing,” said Jordan Reed, laboratory director for Spencer Hospital. “We have worked closely with local physicians, using regional and national resources, to develop criteria to test patients that ensures local testing materials are used appropriately while providing testing and care when it is indicated. While the sample is collected from a person within our community, the testing for coronavirus is performed at the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa or at a regional reference laboratory so it’s important we meet the testing protocol for those labs before collecting a specimen.

Reed continued, “Beyond concern for conservation of local testing materials, the materials needed to conduct the actual test for coronavirus at state and national labs are limited. Development of new medical tests is a complicated process that typically takes years, so limitations in testing supply is due to a combination of this developmental process and the fact that coronavirus is a new virus that we couldn’t even test for in the United States outside of the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) prior to Feb. 7.”

Despite the current limitations, Reed remains optimistic.

“Every day we get updates about progress testing sites are making to add testing and testing capacity,” he said. “The nation’s testing is projected to increase over 10 times its current capacity within the next two weeks.”

As the region’s and country’s capacity to test for coronavirus grows, patients should start to see results from testing in a shorter amount of time.

“Currently it is taking from two to seven days to receive patient results,” Reed said, “as more locations offer testing and increase capacity, we will see that time decrease to two to three days.

Johnson added, “The current testing situation for coronavirus highlights the importance of social distancing in order to ‘flatten the curve,’ which means giving the healthcare system the opportunity to build testing capacity and the ability to respond to health care needs when they arise. The best thing people can do right now to improve testing for coronavirus is to stay home, avoid contact with others, and to call your physician’s office for further evaluation if you feel ill.”

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