Public enrollment for COVID-19 testing coming, health officials say

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — What Austin-Travis County is doing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 is working, and health officials urged the public to keep it up during a press conference Friday to announce a public-facing COVID-19 testing enrollment process.

Austin Public Health Interim Authority Dr. Mark Escott, along with Austin Deputy Medical Director Dr. Chris Hewitt, said this testing allows for people to simply fill out a form and see if they qualify for a test given the still-limited amount of tests available.

That means you no loner need a primary care physician referral to get tested.

An algorithm goes through the form, and if the patient is eligible for a test, they can schedule an appointment at one of the testing sites.

This increases testing access to people and is one of the many steps the city needs to reopen businesses, Dr. Escott said.

“I expect thousands of people may want to be tested. And I want to say, in addition to symptomatic individuals, this system allows us to identify areas that have high rates of infection and allow us to, say in those particular areas, we also want to test asymptomatic people,” he explained.

“I am impressed about the direction we’re headed, however we aren’t out of the woods yet,” Dr. Escott said. “It’s important to remember the steps we’ve taken to get to where we are now … it’s working, and we need it to continue working. We have to continue to stay home and only go out for essential needs, we have to continue to social distance.”

Dr. Escott also mentioned the doubling time of confirmed cases has stretched out from 2 days to 10, and with the requirement to wear face coverings in public settings, things are moving in the right direction, but there’s still an increase in total cases.

Over the last seven days, Austin-Travis County has had 394 new cases, Dr. Escott said. The seven days prior to that there were 291 cases, and seven days prior to that there were 214 cases.

Dr. Escott said there needs to be a decrease in cases over a 14-day period so “we can be in a better position to reopen businesses and get people back to work.”

Dr. Hewitt says the goal for the testing sites are to be as efficient as possible.

“We average about eight minutes per person going through out sites,” Hewitt said. “We have tested over 1,000 people at our sites so far, and plan to increase that capacity to up to 2,000 per week as we go forward.”

Hewitt said getting the results quickly is critical, especially when it comes to contract tracing — tracking down people who have come into close contact with a COVID-19 positive patient and monitoring them for any symptoms.

The need for rapid testing

Dr. Escott said right now, it takes about two days get the test results back from local labs. Once the new online portal launches, he said the wait period will remain around two to three days.

“We need much greater scale testing, and we need it quicker and we need it cheaper,” the Interim Health Authority said. “We need a test that would reliably be able to tell us yes or no, this person is infected within a few minutes, 10 or 15 minutes.”

Escott added: “I think the better capacity we have for that, the better ability we’ll have to control this outbreak and do so safely as we reopen businesses.”

Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, who teaches at Austin Community College and Texas State University, said developing fast, reliable testing, especially for a brand new virus, can take months.

“We just didn’t have any background on the virus so we’re starting from ground zero,” he said. “The reason there’s some delay with this is because if a test is only 50 percent effective, what good is it?”

Rohde said he’s hopeful reliable rapid testing will become more widely available in about one to two months. “I think everybody in the country and the world is working on this. We have a lot of smart people working on it. It’s a matter of getting that technology down,” he said.

He told KXAN another problem with testing in general is a shortage in lab workers.

“We only have about 310,000 medical lab professionals in the U.S. So if you look at the population of 350 million, that’s about 1 of me for every 1,130 of you,” he explained.

Escott said he expects in about a month or two, more rapid testing will be available.

“Our ideal situation is to be able to tell people their results within about an hour when they get tested,” he said.

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