As more and more COVID-19 cases emerge in Northern California and the state grapples with its first death from the illness, counties are working through how to monitor potential cases and when to test patients.
There have been 53 confirmed cases in California, including 24 people repatriated from overseas. The California Department of Public Health says 515 people have been tested for the virus.
California health officials say they’ve dispensed enough COVID-19 testing kits for 1,200 people. Those kits have been distributed to county public health labs across the state, including one in Sacramento.
This is a change from a few weeks ago, when most samples were overnighted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. At a press conference last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called on the federal government to provide states with more kits.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, Sacramento County’s health services director, said their lab started processing kits on Sunday and has tested “a few dozen” people so far.
The department has monitored roughly 150 people total, while periodically taking those who test negative for the virus or positive for something else off of the investigation list.
“We still have to be careful about which cases we test for,” he said. “We have more leeway to test, but we can still use more tests.”
The agency’s first batch of test kits contained a problematic ingredient, which caused a bottleneck in the testing process.
When COVID-19 cases first started showing up in the United States, the CDC only recommended testing for people with known travel histories to high-risk parts of the world, or those who’d been in close contact with a traveler to one of those areas.
Now, the agency is recommending local health departments test some patients who don’t have the relevant travel history. They’re keeping an eye out for people with symptoms that could be present in either COVID-19 or influenza patients, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.
The guidelines changed after the first case of unknown origin arrived in Northern California. The female patient first treated at NorthBay VacaValley hospital in Vacaville before being transferred to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. She was not immediately screened for the illness.
County health departments must get federal approval to test people for COVID-19, because test kits are in short supply.
Beilenson said in Sacramento County, health workers approach potential COVID-19 cases by testing for influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus first, and then considering a COVID-19 test only if the patient is negative for those conditions.
“That’s frankly probably more likely by far than the coronavirus,” he said. “By testing those, we kind of pre-screen people if you will.”
If someone is severely ill, Beilenson said, health workers might give the COVID-19 test right away.
Health officials are recommending that people with mild symptoms stay home and contact a doctor.
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