EVERETT — Testing for the new coronavirus continued across Washington state on Friday, with more counties reporting positive results, but tests remain in short supply, according to at least one health care provider.
As of Friday, state health officials have conducted about 6,000 tests and more than 568 came back positive.
Earlier this week, the latest guidance provided to clinicians by the Snohomish Health District noted that there were no longer restrictions on who could be tested, that commercial tests were now widely available, and that providers could test any patient with symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
But Tove Skaftun, chief nursing officer at Community Health Center of Snohomish County, said there continues to be a shortage of both nasal swabs and the media in which those swabs are placed for transportation to the lab.
As of Thursday, the seven clinics operated by the nonprofit agency had a total 145 swabs and 307 test media among them. A new supply of the media and pharyngeal swabs is on back order from her supplier, LabCorp, which she said is prioritizing delivery of those supplies to hospitals.
Skaftun said some testing barriers have been lowered. She’s no longer required to get state Department of Health approval to obtain a sample and she can now send specimens directly to a University of Washington lab for results.
Still, patient traffic at the clinics continues to be above normal, especially at the Everett-Central Clinic at 4201 Rucker Ave., Skaftun said.
“The message we’re sending to our patients now is that we aren’t going to guarantee that they will be tested,” Skaftun said “You really are trying to test those patients who are symptomatic rather than just the general public out of fear.”
Skafutn said she continues to strongly recommend that people manage their illness at home.
“A diagnosis isn’t treatment,’’ she said. “If you’re able to manage your symptoms at home, which a very large majority of people can do, then that’s the safest thing for them to do. I can’t underscore that enough.”
The clinics also are receiving calls from a “high quantity” of people saying their employers were requiring proof of a negative test before the person could return to work, she said.
Some could just be using that as an excuse to get tested, Skaftun said, but in other cases she said the clinic works with both the patient and employer to let them know the person has been screened but doesn’t meet the criteria for testing at this time.
Test processing is available at four sites statewide.
The state’s public health lab can perform 300 tests a day. Results are ready in about 48 hours.
The University of Washington’s Virology Department has capacity for 2,200 tests each day, and results are available in 24 hours.
In the next five days, the UW lab could reach 3,000 daily tests.
Two private companies based in California are also testing patients.
One of the labs, Quest, is expanding its number of labs across the country. Currently, Quest can test more than 1,000 patients each day.
The other company, LabCorp, is hoping to have capacity for thousands of daily tests in a few weeks.
The Gates Foundation is working on a home testing kit that is awaiting FDA approval.
The outbreak is also causing problems for health care facilities, where doctors, nurses and other employees may test positive for COVID-19.
The Snohomish Health District is tracking the number of health care workers who test positive for the virus, but did not make that number available. The health district stopped providing individual patient information this week, citing the growing number of cases.
Experts say keeping health care workers healthy is crucial to preventing the disease from spreading. A shortage of doctors and nurses could lead to understaffed hospitals and other care centers being overwhelmed.
Skaftun said none of her staff have tested positive for the virus.
“We’re prepared if it happens,” she said.
County and state protocol calls for health care workers experiencing symptoms to be put into self-isolation and then be tested.
State health officials have put in two requests with the federal government for medical supplies to support health care workers. To date, the government has filled both requests.
Washington has received 595,940 N-95 respirators; 508,206 surgical masks; 63,688 face shields; 97,850 surgical gowns; and 240,376 gloves, according to the governor’s office.
Skaftun said protective equipment remains in short supply.
“Masks are definitely an issue,” she said. “We had patients steal them from the waiting room. Now we have receptionists hand them out.”
New recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control include expanding phone and video treatment, screening employees, patients and visitors before entering health care facilities, and cancelling non-emergency procedures or visits.
The goal is to alleviate any unnecessary burden on hospitals.
Health care facilities in the region are restricting visitor access to prevent spreading the virus.
Providence Health and Services Washington locations, including Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, are requiring that all visitors be at least 18 years old and an immediate family member, legal guardian or have power of attorney.
Hospital staff is screening all guests. Those with a cold, flu-like symptoms or a fever are told to go home.
Additionally, visitation hours are now between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.
On Thursday, Swedish Medical Center announced similar restrictions on visitors to all of the health care provider’s campuses, including the Edmonds hospital.
Under the new rules, emergency department patients and underage patients can have one visitor. Women giving birth can have one partner and one birth support person present. Infants in the neonatal intensive care unit can have a parent and significant other visit. Patients in end-of-life care may have two guests at a time. Long-term patients can have one one-hour visitor per week.
Skaftun said the Community Health clinics continue to increase patient screening methods and that people should not visit a clinic without calling ahead to prevent spreading the virus. The clinics are seeing an increase in car visits, where symptomatic patients call ahead and are met in the clinic parking lot by health providers. Someone who’s been exposed to the virus or is under investigation of having it is masked and put in a room accessed only by health care providers.
At the state Department of Health, an employee at the agency’s Tumwater campus tested positive for the virus, officials announced Thursday in a news release.
The employee was last at work on March 6 and didn’t exhibit any symptoms until they were at home for the weekend. The worker is staying at home until they recover.
Anyone determined to have had close contact with the employee will be asked to self-quarantine, the news release said.
Skaftun is thankful for an infection control plan for respiratory infections her clinics adopted two years ago.
“Although there’s increased concern among people, I feel we have the resources in place and ability to take care of it,” she said. “I think the struggle we’re having is trying to manage the panic from patients and visitors which trickles down to our staff. So, constant email communication, constant reassurance, constant updates of our workplace measures, all those things provide me comfort. I don’t feel like we’re trying to figure this out on the fly.”
“It’s super important for people to realize that 80% who get this disease recover just fine on their own. We need to do a better job … to calm the fears and chaos. Fear and chaos just decrease the effectiveness of the management of the outbreak. “
The Associated Press contributed to this story.