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To Meet Demands Of Coronavirus Surge, County Health Department Changes Testing Guidelines

Sarah Boden
Dr. Matthew Yu of North Side Christian Health Center holds an unopened coronavirus test. His clinic is one of several in the county that use California-based Curative to analyze samples.

Due to the recent spike in coronavirus infections, the Allegheny County Health Department on Wednesday announced it has changed its recommendations for testing in order to meet demand.

The department is now saying that asymptomatic people who may have been exposed to the virus should not get tested, but they should still quarantine for 14 days.

“Given our current demand for high specimen collection and testing, we really need to prioritize those who need to get these services the most,” said department director Dr. Debra Bogen.

There are exceptions to this guidance. First responders and medical workers should get tested after a potential exposure. Such instances might include a visit to a crowded store, or “high-risk travel,” such as flying on a plane or staying with non-household family members.

Additionally, adults who are unable to quarantine but who suspect they’ve been exposed can get tested. This group is considered the lowest testing priority.

“I understand that not everyone can quarantine for 14 days or work from home,” Bogen said. “But know that a negative test doesn’t guarantee that you don’t have COVID-19.”

Coronavirus test results occasionally produce false negatives. For this reason, the county tells all close contacts of coronavirus patients to quarantine for 14 days, even if they test negative for the virus.

Because children can usually stay home for 14 days, Bogen said they should not get tested after a possible exposure.

“It may mean missing a game or a practice but seeking testing in order to return to sports unfortunately isn’t a priority at this time,” Bogen said. “If a child is showing symptoms of COVID-19, it’s important to contact your pediatric health care provider.”

People with symptoms, even mild symptoms, are still encouraged to get tested. As are those who have been in close contact with someone else who has tested positive for the virus.

People are notified that they’ve had close contact by the county’s contact tracers. But on Tuesday, the health department learned of previously unreported positive test results among Allegheny County resdients from as early as June 8.

At the county’s weekly COVID-19 press conference on Wednesday, Bogen said these missing results are from tests analyzed by Curative, a California-based biotech company.

In May, the county arranged for Curative tests to be administrated at federally qualified health centers, which are clinics that receive federal funding to operate in medically underserved communities

“Something went wrong with the way Curative was uploading the electronic reporting of laboratory [results] to the state system,” Bogen said. “The state did try to contact Curative about the missing data but did not get a response. And unfortunately, we were not notified of that problem.”

Though people were informed of positive results by their providers, the county was not. This cost precious time, as the goal of contact tracing is to alert people that they've been exposed to the virus before they infect others.

“I really take this incredibly seriously and pledge to you that we are doing everything we can to prevent this in the future,” said Bogen. “These have been very tough days in the health department.”

Bogen said Curative has apologized. And that both the company and the health department apologized to the medical clinics during a Tuesday phone call.

Curative will now send the health department daily reports. And the Pennsylvania Department of Health will notify Allegheny County if its missing any data from Curative.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.