State pushes to widen testing: Officials aim to further measure scope of virus

A National Guardsman hands a driver a COVID-19 test kit at Milford High School on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — As Delaware’s reported number of negative COVID-19 tests rises, officials continue pushing to reach wide swaths of society to further gauge the spread’s true reach.

How many First Staters — asymptomatic or otherwise — aren’t being tested leaves the current amount of the coronavirus here as unquantified, though.

At this point, however, Division of Public Health State Medical Director Dr. Rick Hong said he believes sufficiently widespread participation from an array of population subsets validates the numbers and defines the scope of the coronavirus in Delaware.
Confident in a lack of statistical bias determined from the current counts, Dr. Hong said there’s no need for any form of random testing at this point.

“We have the capacity to test anyone interested in testing regardless of symptoms,” Dr. Hong said. “We offer multiple ways to get tested to address barriers (examples including cost, transportation, lack of primary care access, lack of insurance) that may limit someone’s ability to get tested to get a more representative view of COVID-19 in Delaware.”

Testing throughout Delaware has remained consistently similar in producing valid determinations on tests, Dr. Hong said.

“We are confident in the accuracy of our molecular diagnostic tests being utilized, and the accuracy among the PCR testing methods being implemented across the state are comparable,” he said.

PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing is a technique that is used to amplify trace amounts of DNA located in or on almost any liquid or surface where DNA strands may be deposited.

Also, resources have continued expanding testing’s reach in the past three months.

“Our overall state’s testing capacity has increased given the availability of supply chains for supplies and reagents, support from the federal government, and our community and hospital partners’ ability to increase capacity to test,” Dr. Hong said Friday.

Test result returns that took 72 to 96 hours two months ago are now mostly finalized within 24 to 36 hours and shared with the test taker, according to officials. Flagged high risk cases can be expedited as well, Dr. Hong said.

Testing is crucial, “particularly to identify those with infection but either have no symptoms or mild symptoms,” Dr. Hong said.

“However, regardless of testing, we are asking the public to follow infection control measures such as social distancing, use of face coverings, hand hygiene, etc. Positive results would hopefully encourage compliance with infection control measures, but negative results do not negate the need for such measures.”

There’s no end in sight either as the coronavirus remains in Delaware.

“We anticipate emphasis on testing into the next influenza season until at least a vaccine becomes readily available to the general public,” Dr. Hong said.

Through information sharing and regular communication, Delaware has collaborated with other states to gather information on what works best.

“State health departments routinely discuss experiences and best practices during this pandemic, and Delaware has been contacted by other states to learn about our successes with community testing, outbreak response, and partnerships with certain industries considered high-risk settings,” Dr. Hong said.

The numbers — rising, falling or flattening — help guide state officials in their strategic planning and response. Positive statistics are reason for cautious optimism, but the potential dangers lurk with every step.

“Even though the trends are favorable now, as reopening continues, we need to follow these trends to see if current measures are effective in alleviating the inherent risks of infection spread during reopening,” Dr. Hong said.

Facilitating the testing

The Delaware Emergency Management Agency handles the logistics of testing events, assisted by the Delaware National Guard and Delaware Department of Transportation.

Thanks to coordination with the medical community and local stakeholders, DEMA Director A.J. Schall said even large-scale drive-through events can take just 10 to 15 minutes of individual participation.

While pre-registration is strongly encouraged, Mr. Schall said weeks of testing have provided indicators for how many arrivals to actually plan for. For example, he said, an event with 730 registrations should be set to serve another 200 unscheduled arrivals.

“The plan always involves trying to right size the services available for the amount of public participation that turns out,” he said.

A Guardsman gives a driver a COVID-19 test kit at Milford High School. Test result returns that took 72 to 96 hours two months ago are now mostly finalized within 24 to 36 hours and shared with the test taker, according to officials. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Mr. Schall described current overall participation as “good” and he’s found communities have been responsive to recent developments.
Location and advance publicity matter most, he said, and a cross section of social media sources, churches, government agencies, health organizations and more have collaborated to create a wide informational network.

The public appears to be responsive to situations that may cause concern, and Mr. Schall pointed to a recent high testing turnout in Rehoboth Beach following postive virus cases among high school graduates participating in Senior Week visits at the Delaware beaches.

“We saw a little uptick in testing, which is good, but we hope that doesn’t bring an uptick in cases as well,” Mr. Schall said.

Through 6 p.m. Thursday, according to DPH, the state had seen 91,083 negative cases since March 11. The preliminary data was based on reports from state and commercial laboratories performing analysis.

Information about testing events, including community, health care systems and hospital sites are listed online at coronavirus.delaware.gov/testing/.

Reasons to go

Army National Guard Sgt. Norman Greene concurred that virus developments in Delaware drove participation. As he administered tests at Milford High School on Friday, he said, “I think people are getting tested just off the awareness of what’s going on in the news about different places doing spikes… the virus spiking.”

Following a 35-minute drive to Milford, Dewey Beach resident Serena Hayes was in cautious mode due to reported positive case spikes at the beach, she said.

“We’d been to the bars last week and we haven’t been feeling well, so we all decided in our house to get tested.”

While some attendees came voluntarily, Sgt. Greene said others were motivated by employment requirements.

“I think some of the people are just here for awareness, but one thing we’ve noticed is that some are here because they actually need notes to go back to work. A lot of times people have an actual reason to be here.”

Saying she’s had positive and negative tests, both with no symptoms, Milford’s Patricia Hamer checked in because “I never feel sure that I’m not carrying it around.”

At least the process was straightforward and quick.

“Basically, all it is is just a cotton swab to the mouth,” Sgt. Greene said. “It’s kind of like a DNA test, per se. All you’re doing is just rubbing a cotton swab around your mouth for a good amount of time, about 30 seconds, and putting it in a tube, so it’s pretty simple.”

Of the experience, Ms. Hayes said, “It was very easy. It was very quick. It took no time.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t some discomfort, according to Sgt. Greene.

“The one that they stick in your nose is a little more painful than the one that you just swab around your mouth,” he said. “[They provide] the same results.”

Ms. Hamer is skeptical about Delawareans’ response to COVID-19’s arrival.

“A lot of people have not been tested,” she said. “They don’t take it seriously… Americans have a short attention span, and we’re tired.”

Also, Ms. Hamer said, “I think they should make it mandatory that people wear masks.

“Half the people walking in Delaware walk around without a mask. I don’t think the beaches should be open either.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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