Later this week, the tents at a pop-up public health testing facility at an Everett Memorial Stadium parking lot will come down and regular community testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus will end.
Not because victory has been declared over a viral pandemic that has isolated us in our homes and shut down large swaths of our economy; but because federal funding and supply for the community based-testing site in Everett and others like it in the state are ending and resources will be diverted elsewhere in the country.
Testing for the coronavirus will continue, said Heather Thomas, the communications director for Snohomish Health District, but future supplies of testing materials and capacity for processing tests will be focused on highest-risk populations, health care workers and first responders. Unless additional funding to resume the program can be identified, the testing that began March 23 and made available by appointment to the general public — who had symptoms of the disease and were identified as at-risk because of age, pregnancy or underlying health conditions — is likely to end Thursday.
Representatives with the federal agencies involved — the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services — met last week with public health and other officials to begin transition of the program to state and local agencies. The testing sites were always intended as a temporary program, but local officials had hoped for additional support while other potential funding was investigated.
Costs for running the testing sites in Snohomish County and elsewhere in the state would require significant resources. The testing is labor-intensive and requires a reliable stream of supplies for testing kits and personal protective equipment. The sites required staff to administer the tests and ensure quality control, safety, security and proper disposal of biohazardous wastes. They also require arrangements with labs to process test materials, then notification of patients when results were ready.
Despite those costs, the information provided would be valuable in informing decisions on when the most extreme of social-distancing requirements — including orders to remain at home as much as possible and the closure of businesses — could begin to be eased.
Washington state appears to be among the first states to have reached the peak of demand for hospital and health care resources as well as for deaths from COVID-19 and could now see a steady decline in both measures. But the danger — and the risk of losing control over a now-flattened curve — remain.
“We may be a couple of days past the peak,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, “but we face as much danger now as we did a couple of days before the peak.”
Somers said the county would continue to look for funding to resume a similar testing program, including possible funding from the $2 trillion CARES Act package Congress passed earlier. But an answer on that funding is at least a week or two away, he said.
Adding to the uncertainty was news that some orders of test kit materials and other supplies are being diverted by the federal government. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that a shipment of testing materials ordered by PeaceHealth, which has 10 hospitals in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, had been diverted by FEMA to the East Coast. PeaceHealth said it had been notified by the supplier — not by FEMA — of the redirected shipment and were not provided guidance on replacing what had been redirected.
“We had put wheels in motion with testing and protective equipment to allow us to secure and protect our staff and our patients,” a PeaceHealth official told the Times. “When testing went off the table, we had to come up with a whole new plan.”
No official in Washington state would argue against supplies being sent where there is a greater need in the country, but in order for health care facilities and public health agencies to provide for their own needs, more transparency and better communication and coordination regarding such diversions of supplies must come from the federal agencies.
We remain at least a year or more away from widespread availability of a vaccine that can deliver the level of “herd immunity” that would cripple COVID-19. Until a vaccine is available, much of the social-distancing measures now in practice will have to remain in effect. Wider availability of testing, Somers said, would allow for better tracking of the disease, specifically notification of those who had come in contact with someone carrying the virus.
Without guidance from test results, there is less certainty about when and how restrictions on businesses and our normal daily activities can be confidently lifted.
The projections from models such as that from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation now predict fewer than 850 deaths in the state and 62,000 nationwide, improvements over earlier estimates. But those projections, IHME officials have stressed, assume social distancing measures remain in place until June 1; not May 1, as President Trump and others are now touting as preferable. Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders aren’t expected to be lifted until May 4 at the earliest and could be extended.
There’s hope that new procedures and equipment for testing, such as that studied by an Everett Clinic physician that could allow for self-administered tests, are advancing, the health district’s Thomas said. But wide-scale use of such tests will also require significant financial support and increased capacity for processing.
In its three weeks of operation, the community testing site at Memorial Stadium saw about 2,100 people, Thomas said. Of about 1,300 test results, 59 patients tested positive for the virus, about 4.5 percent. That’s useful information for those tested and for the larger community.
The work performed under the white tents at Memorial Stadium was a demonstration of what amply available testing could deliver in a greater level of certainty about the virus’ spread in our community and how best to confront it.
Some of that certainty will now be folded up with the tents.