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Pennsylvania Doctors Worried as Testing Problems Arise Again

As COVID-19 continues a summer rampage in numerous states that largely escaped the spring wave, there are new complaints of shortages of testing supplies including swabs and chemicals, known as reagents, used to process tests.

by David Wenner, The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa. / July 15, 2020
TNS
(TNS) - Those who thought complaints of insufficient coronavirus testing reflected politics more than reality may be reconsidering.
 
Nick Mulvaney, president Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, wrote on Sunday, “I know it isn’t popular to talk about in some Republican circles, but we still have a testing problem in this country.”
 
He reached that conclusion after his son had to wait more than five days for test results, and his daughter, who wanted to get tested before visiting grandparents, was told she didn’t qualify for a test.
 
Mulvaney, who was otherwise supportive of Trump, encountered a problem untold others have been describing for months. But his speaking out was noteworthy since it contradicted Trump’s claims of a model testing program.
 
As COVID-19 continues a summer rampage in numerous states that largely escaped the spring wave, there are new complaints of shortages of testing supplies including swabs and chemicals, known as reagents, used to process tests.
 
It’s causing long delays in receiving test results and limiting the people who can get tested. That’s a problem, since widely-available tests and fast results are central to the strategy of quickly identifying people who are infected, isolating them, and tracing their contacts to find and isolate others who may be infected.
 
Further, it can deny testing to people who may have been exposed, and need to know whether it’s safe to go near family or household members who are especially vulnerable to getting seriously ill or dying.
 
The demand for tests due to surges in states including Florida, Texas and California is sucking supplies away from other states. There are signs it’s being felt in Pennsylvania.
 
At Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, doctors on Tuesday stressed that fast results are critical to preventing spread of COVID-19 within the hospital, and assuring non-COVID-19 patients it’s safe for them to seek care. For example, Penn State Health and most if not all other hospitals are testing everyone who enters the hospital, including those in need of elective procedures and other non-COVID care.
 
Dr. Susan Promes, the chair of the department of emergency medicine, said Penn State Hershey has multiple suppliers of reagents and the supply is holding up.
 
Still, she said the center is being judicious in its use of tests, using versions that yield slower results for people who won’t be staying at the hospital, and reserving versions that produce results within 90 minutes for people being hospitalized.
 
Discussing the ability to test people and get results quickly enough, Promes said “we’re doing OK on that front right now.”
 
On Monday, state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine was asked about the shortages, and whether it was hurting Pennsylvania’s ability to quickly isolate people who are sick and trace their contacts.
 
She said getting results fast enough for adequate contact tracing is “a real challenge … One of the things we’re concerned about is the delay in terms of getting results.”
 
Levine said the state laboratory, which processes the tests of people in nursing homes and other high priority settings, is returning results in 24-48 hours. She said most hospital labs can produce similarly fast results.
 
But she said there can be delays of seven days or more with national companies including Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, which are processing many tests done in Pennsylvania. She attributed to problem to those companies “being inundated” with tests from the hard-hit states.
 
She said the situation poses “a real challenge in terms of being able to tell people that they’re positive and do isolation, and then do the contact tracing.”
 
Levine said she had calls scheduled with Quest and LabCorp to discuss the long waits, which she called a “national issue.”
 
In recent weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf has held up the availability of tests in Pennsylvania as a highlight of the pandemic response.
 
Levine this week said Pennsylvania has been averaging more than 15,000 tests per day for more than a month, and recently did more than 22,000 in a day.
 
She said the state has surpassed an early federal goal of testing 2% of the population per month. She said the state is closing in on testing 4%, and would like to surpass that, since it would mean a substantial number of people who have no symptoms but might be carrying COVID-19 are getting tested.
 
In addition to the state lab, the hospital labs and the national testing chains, CVS, Rite Aid and Walmart are offering tests in Pennsylvania.
 
But holes in access to testing remain. For example, Hamilton Health, a federally supported medical clinic in Harrisburg, is gearing up to provide mobile testing at city locations as well as more remote parts of its service area in Dauphin and Perry counties. The plan is to advertise times and locations where people can get tested on a given day.
 
In Perry County, officials are working with Hamilton and Carlisle-based Sadler Health Center, another federally-supported clinic, to provide moving testing locations.
 
Officials in such areas see convenient access to tests as critical to preventing outbreaks that could create new pressure to close businesses or schools, or create fear that could keep people away from places such as restaurants even if they remain open.
 
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©2020 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)
 
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