Graham Kilmer

COVID-19 Testing Supplies Running Low

State and local officials prioritizing tests for worst cases, so results understate spread of disease.

By - Mar 18th, 2020 06:35 pm
CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase (RT)-PCR Diagnostic Panel. Photo is the Public Domain.

CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase (RT)-PCR Diagnostic Panel. Photo is the Public Domain.

Testing supplies for COVID-19, commonly called the coronavirus, are beginning to run low, forcing state and local officials to prioritize testing.

Government leaders and health officials revealed this at a press conference Wednesday afternoon at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, saying their ability to test for the virus is hampered by the lack of supplies, forcing the county to process tests only for those believed most likely to be infected and ill. As a result, the number of positive cases of COVID-19 being announced has now become a “lagging indicator,” as Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele put it.

So today’s total of 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Milwaukee County, up from 40 announced at the same time yesterday, is undoubtedly an underestimate of the number of positive cases, because not everyone is being tested.  

The State of Wisconsin has a lab that can process 400 tests a day and the City of Milwaukee Health Department has a lab that can process 150 tests per day. But that depends upon having having enough testing supplies, which are dwindling. On Tuesday, Dr. Allen Bateman, Assistant Director of the Communicable Disease Division at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene at UW-Madison, warned that “We have a decent number of supplies currently, but the supply chain is fragile.” Bateman intimated that the state would be selective in what cases it tests.

But yesterday that was spelled out in specific detail by the state Department of Health Services in a memo to all local health officers and health care providers with an “Urgent Update” revealing the blunt truth: “the number of specimens being received during the week of March 16, 2020 far exceeds” the “daily capacity” of the state and city labs and “Priority should therefore be given to the testing of specimens from patients for whom a timely diagnosis is most urgent.”

The memo spelled out a criteria for who would and wouldn’t get a test for COVID-19: “Going forward,” only those patients that fall within top two tiers of a four tier testing guideline will be tested. Cases meeting this criteria are as follows:

  • critically ill and symptomatic
  • Hospitalized, symptomatic, known exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case and/or traveled to an area where “sustained community transmission has been identified.
  • Health care workers that are symptomatic.

Both the state and city testing lab now follow this procedure. Anyone that doesn’t meet those criteria is not currently having their test processed. As such, testing is falling increasingly behind the actual rate of infection. Jeanette Kowalik, health commissioner for the City of Milwaukee, said it will be very difficult for testing to keep pace with the outbreak. “There is quite a surge for testing,” she warned.

Right now, officials say the most important thing everyone can do is stay home and social distance. If you have recently returned from a level three country or an area of the United States where there is community transmission, you should self-quarantine for 14 days and monitor yourself for symptoms.

At this point it is not just people coming from outside the county bringing in the virus. Health officials have already determined that Milwaukee County is experiencing community transmission.

Kowalik said there are five states in the U.S that are at level three, the top level of risk: New York, California, Washington, New Jersey and Massachusetts. But it’s only a matter of time before Wisconsin joins that list: because of the increasing infections officials believe Wisconsin will be elevated to level three “as time goes on,” Kowalik said.

“We’re seeing a significant increase in the number of cases on a day-to-day basis,” said Dr. Ben Weston, director of Medical Services for Milwaukee County.

Kowalik also stressed the importance of complying with the bar and restaurant shut-down order given by Gov. Tony Evers, which prohibits all in-house service, allowing only pick-ups or deliveries. She said that violators are committing a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

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Categories: Health, MKE County

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