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Patients And Health Experts Argue Against Johnson County, Kansas, Scaling Back COVID-19 Testing

Andy Marso
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment will longer perform COVID-19 tests for many Johnson County residents

Johnson County health officials scaled back testing for coronavirus this week after determining that the county has community transmission.

Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says the state needs to prioritize testing in other places due to limited test supplies. But some public experts say the move will limit efforts to combat COVID-19.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Norman said the move to limit testing to only individuals in hospitals was a “time honored” public health strategy and a required step to prevent the state from running out of testing supplies.

Because the treatment for COVID-19 is the same is treatment for other respiratory illness, he said, a confirmed diagnosis doesn’t make much difference to individuals who are sick.

However, the news came as a jolt to some people who are currently sick.

Katherine, at 27-year woman with a compromised immune system, has felt sick for the past week. (We are only using Katherine’s first name to protect her health information.)

She lives in Missouri, but like many people in Kansas and other parts of the country, she’s been unable to get tested for COVID-19.

Katherine says she was told by a doctor on Monday that she didn’t qualify for a test because she hasn’t traveled to a place with widespread transmission or been in close contact with a confirm COVID-19 patient.

“It was frustrating to say the least,” Katherine says. “Not just for me. The doctor and the nurse that I dealt with were equally frustrated.”

Ever since she started feeling sick, Katherine and her whole family have been in isolation to make sure they don’t spread the illness, in case in turns out to be COVID-19.

“My family and I thought it was important to follow those guidelines,” Katherine says. “However, now, since I do have symptoms, it’s just even more isolating within my home. I don’t get within six feet of family members, and only a few are able to be in the same house as I am.”

Katherine says those precautions have been just as disruptive as if she had the virus.

Health officials in other parts of the U.S., including Utah and Minnesota, have taken similar steps to scale back testing.

Dr. Claire Standley, an infectious disease researcher at Georgetown University, says that, from the standpoint of people who are trying to track and mitigate the virus, this is a step in the wrong direction.

“I think there’s been some substantial backlash from epidemiologists and medical doctors, noting that, in order to measure whether your control measures are being effective, you need to know what your extent of transmission is, and you won’t know that unless you do testing,” Standley says.

Standley explains that the data gathered from the tests may also be used to guide actions taken by state and local leaders, such as moving schools to virtual classes, limiting the size of gatherings or even calling for lockdowns.

She says data from tests is especially important in situations like we are in now, where hospitals are really trying to figure out how to allocate resources like beds and ventilators when there is the potential for a surge of cases.

“If those types of resources are likely to become a constraint, then that might be an indication that more stringent control measures are needed to be put into place earlier on, so that you don’t end up in a situation like Italy,” Standley says.

After announcing the new testing limits, Norman said that he doesn’t anticipate running out of testing equipment, however, the supply will need to continue to be replenished to meet demand.

Alex Smith is a health care reporter for KCUR. You can reach him at alexs@kcur.org.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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