Doctor: COVID testing critical to battling spread, but not enough people testing, turnaround times are major problems

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – If COVID testing is going to be factor in curbing the virus’s spread, more people in the region need to be tested than currently are, and results need to return more quickly than they are.

That’s the assessment of Dr. Sheri Holmes with East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, who believes testing has a critically important role to play in mitigating COVID as the world awaits a proven and widely available vaccine.

And with testing positivity rates in the teens — roughly triple the recommended minimum level — the region has its work cut out for it and needs more testing, not less, Holmes said.

Before laying out lots of important information about testing and how helpful it can be, though, Holmes stressed the importance of behaviors that people can control.

“If we’re relying on testing to control this it’s not going to work, because the control comes with the behaviors that precipitate this,” Holmes said. “If you’re relying on testing as just a platform to control this it will not work.”

That caveat aside, testing is very important, Holmes said.

“The most important thing to do with that data is to contact trace and educate people of the importance of quarantine and isolation,” Holmes said.

The average positivity percentage in Northeast Tennessee’s seven counties is nearly double the rate of two-and-a-half months ago.

“The more numbers you have you can identify clusters in communities, in schools, in public service areas. Identifying clusters is important and making sure you isolate those people so that the more information we have the better we can manage this.”

There’s a two-part problem right now, though, Holmes said, and it’s really crimping public health workers’ ability to create workable models for controlling community spread.

First, results aren’t coming back soon enough. That was understandable during the virus’s early days, when the science was developing and companies were ramping up production capacity. Holmes said return times were often seven to 10 days.

By the time the summer surge hit, though, companies had ramped up supplies, access was fairly plentiful and turnaround times dropped to one to three days — fast enough to deploy contact tracing and other efforts and actually make a difference. That didn’t last.

“We’re at a point now where the systems are again overwhelmed,” Holmes said. She said one company ETSU uses is back to a seven-day lag instead of the previous 48 to 72 hours.

“We’re discussing, ‘what do we do with those tests? Because they’re really not even helpful at that point.

“Then it’s just academic, which the academics of this is very important… just so we can learn more about this this virus and and how it is transmitted and how transmissible it is. But to really impact this we have to have rapid turnaround times.”

Too many people still not seeking testing

Even if turnaround times were better, the region still would face the challenge of too few people getting tested, Holmes said.

“When you’re looking at 15 to 20% positivity that clearly says we need to be testing more people,” Holmes said.

The community spread rate (cases per 100,000 population) is more than triple its rate of early October even though testing totals are only 26 percent higher.

She said anyone who has any possible COVID symptoms, no matter how mild, should be tested. So should all people who know they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive.

With positivity rates so high, that’s definitely not happening.

“What we see with the young people, which is typically the 20-year-olds that test, they say, ‘Oh, I just have a little bit of an allergy symptom or I have a little bit of sinus congestion.’

“Those very vague, very mild symptoms, when I call people positive results in they’re like, ‘I am shocked, this just seemed like my seasonal allergies, so we would encourage anyone who can access a test to go ahead.

“Those are the kind of symptoms that most of us just soldier on with around all sorts of other people.”

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