Testing for COVID-19 spikes but NC still lags behind other states

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In North Carolina, the number of tests for patients for the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, continues to rise dramatically, as does the number of positive cases.

New data released Friday by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services shows 57,645 tests completed, more than 10,000 since Thursday, which is the largest single-day increase since the first test was administered at the beginning of March.

"It's definitely coming on the on-ramp but we still have a ways to go," Dr. Jeff Engel, Executive Director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, said of states increasing their testing capabilities. "I think the biggest hurdle we overcame was establishing very robust public-private partnerships."

In North Carolina, those partnerships include the Emergency Operations Center and at least eight major health networks and hospital systems: LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics, UNC Health Care, Atrium Health, Vidant Health, Durham VA, Wake Forest Baptist Health, and Duke.

According to state officials, the increase in testing volume is attributed to more of the data coming online from those partners, along with recent outbreaks in some prisons and care facilities.

Still, an I-Team analysis showing North Carolina's testing capacity per one million residents significantly lags behind other states. While New York, Louisiana and Massachusetts sit atop the 50 states and Washington, D.C., North Carolina ranks 44.

Dr. Engel, however, tells ABC11 testing volume is not a critical metric to public health professionals.

"We don't know what it means," Dr. Engel, the former State Epidemiologist who led North Carolina during the H1N1 (Swine Flu) Pandemic, said. "It may mean that some states want to target it more for those people at higher risk like vulnerable populations or health care workers or people with symptoms who perform essential duties for society, whereas some states have adopted a drive-through clinic mentality where there'll take anyone who wants to get tested."

A more accurate measuring stick, Dr. Engel suggests, is what's happening at the hospitals and state officials this week offered a promising outlook in its new modeling.

"If this peak is coming under the hospital capacity, you're community is in good shape. That to me is the biggest take home."

As for how and when widespread testing will matter, Dr. Engel explains that there are two major factors: first, there needs to be a dramatic increase in available Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that will allow for more clinicians to administer tests instead of rationing PPE to ensure hospital staff is well equipped to care for COVID-19 positive patients.

Second, widespread testing will be key to when the state - and the country - is in position to slowly and meticulously scale back social distancing.

"After this first wave, the blanket test will be very appropriate, but it won't be done on everybody," Dr. Engel said. "There will be a statistically randomized sample so we can understand the number of people infected after the first wave rolls through. The real problem with COVID-19 is that it could be up to half the people with COVID-19 have minimal or no symptoms whatsoever. They're not going to see doctors or clinics, and in this first wave they won't be tested."
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