LYNNWOOD — In a first-of-its-kind program, the Snohomish Health District on Wednesday started conducting rapid coronavirus tests at a drive-thru site, with results ready in just 15 minutes.
Two Abbott Laboratories testing machines produced the speedy analyses. Other counties also received machines from the state Department of Health but Snohomish could be the first to use them, health district spokeswoman Heather Thomas said.
The new testing method means patients will get results in minutes, not days. But there are concerns about false negative results, local and state leaders said. And the machines can only process dozens of tests a day, far fewer than health officials think are needed to help blunt the spread of the virus which causes COVID-19.
“At 50 to 75 (tests) a day in a county of over 800,000 people, it’s not the silver bullet,” Thomas said. “… But it will hopefully speed the amount of time it takes to do case investigations and contact tracing by not having to wait for those labs for two to three to seven days.”
Meanwhile, in Olympia, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday he will extend a statewide stay-home order set to expire Monday night, partly because much more testing is needed throughout Washington to effectively contain the virus and prevent new outbreaks.
The governor didn’t say how much longer the order — in effect since March 23 — will be in place. He said he will lay out a clearer timeline for a phased reopening of the state Friday.
That process is under way. In recent days he’s eased restrictions so work can restart on some construction projects and residents can once again hunt, fish, hike and golf.
Wednesday he said non-urgent surgeries, also known as “elective” procedures, could begin again at hospitals under strict guidance.
But lifting the order completely and abandoning all social distancing measures could enable the the virus to return with a vengeance, and lead to more deaths. In the 100 days since the state’s first positive case was identified in Snohomish County, there have been at least 801 deaths, including 107 in the county.
“We do not want to go through this pain again,” he said. “Let’s just do this once and get it over with.”
Inslee, like governors around the country, has faced increasing pressure to allow more sectors of the economy to restart.
On Wednesday, seated alone at a conference room table, he delivered a nearly hourlong presentation of charts and graphs with the kind of data that he and his administration study in making decisions.
Numbers of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths are declining, but not enough, he said. More testing is needed to get a clearer picture of the virus’ presence in all communities, he said. That number, around 4,650 a day, needs to be closer to 20,000, or more. And when a person tests positive, more people are needed to investigate all those with whom they’ve come in contact.
“There is no one number that is a magic number” that guides our judgment and decisions, he said. It’s a compilation of all of them, he said.
The Washington Department of Health on Wednesday reported 15 additional deaths from the virus, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to at least 801. The agency also reported 230 more people had tested positive, increasing the number of confirmed cases to 14,070.
In Snohomish County, Wednesday’s tally of cumulative cases was 2,417 confirmed infections and 223 “probable” cases, with 107 dead, according to the Snohomish Health District. Since Tuesday, there have been 46 new confirmed infections but no additional fatalities.
In Lynnwood Wednesday, 50 patients had scheduled appointments for the new rapid tests at the drive-thru site set up by the health district with more expected to be tested Friday, Thomas said. Next week, the district may set up at a location in east or north Snohomish County.
Patients lined up in their cars at the district’s Women, Infants and Children office. Drivers were handed swabs and took their own nasal samples. Staff, wearing protective gowns, face guards, masks and gloves, took those samples and placed them in one of the Abbott machines.
Results can take anywhere from three to 18 minutes. If a patient tests positive, they’re given self-isolation instructions, as well as a list of resources and facts. If results are negative, patients are still cautioned on social distancing. “Just because it’s negative now doesn’t mean you couldn’t get sick in the future,” Thomas said.
All of the patients actually received two tests Wednesday — one swab for the Abbott machine and a second which was sent to the state’s public health lab for analysis.
That way, there’s some control as the county tries out the new machines, Thomas said.
Before it was a drive-thru testing site, the health district building in Lynnwood served as an immunization clinic. The wing used for testing previously sat vacant for years. Now, plastic tarps separate the rooms where tests are processed from the lobbies where workers have access to plastic-wrapped deli sandwiches, bottled waters and snacks.
Most of the people working at the site are volunteers, Thomas said. Some are retired health care professionals. Others are furloughed or work part time. One is a school nurse. The rest are with the health district.
The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded its list of symptoms. The list, which had been fever, cough, and shortness of breath now includes chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell.
To be eligible for the county’s drive-thru testing, you must be sick with at least one of the following symptoms: a fever greater than 100.4 degrees, a cough, a sore throat, difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pain, headache or loss of taste or smell. To register, visit redcap.link/Snohomish-COVID19-Testing.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.