BOISE – Idaho’s public health officials are trying to decide whether they’ll officially adopt new CDC guidelines that no longer recommend coronavirus testing for asymptomatic people who have had close contact with infected people.
Some experts said the decision could have a big impact on how coronavirus spreads in Idaho.
How to proceed is under discussion as Idaho faces a critical juncture – with kids starting classes in several school districts across the state and many residents increasingly weary of social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
“We just became aware of this change yesterday and are discussing whether we will be adopting the guidance,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said in an email Wednesday evening.
The CDC guidelines have drawn widespread criticism from scientists who said it runs counter to what is necessary to control the pandemic.
But other health experts said the new guidelines are similar to what many health care providers are already doing. An estimated 4 in 10 infected people don’t ever have symptoms and can silently spread the virus.
The American Medical Association in a statement called the change “a recipe for community spread.” And the Association of American Medical Colleges called it “a step backward in fighting the pandemic.”
“I don’t know how anyone believes that we have a better chance at controlling the spread of this virus by doing less testing,” said Dr. David Peterman, a pediatrician and the CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, the largest independent medical group in Idaho.
Primary Health has been following the guidelines of the governor’s testing task force, Peterman said, and testing people who have had close contact with someone who has coronavirus.
The rate of newly confirmed coronavirus cases in Idaho has remained mostly steady over the past two weeks, but the numbers are still quite high. With more than 30,700 confirmed cases of the virus, Idaho ranks 11th in the nation for the number of newly confirmed cases per capita, according to data from Johns Hopkins University and The COVID Tracking Project.
Deaths have been trending upward slightly, with an average of more than six daily attributed to COVID-19 over the past week. At least 337 Idaho residents have died from the virus so far, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.
“Anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of the individuals who have coronavirus are asymptomatic,” Peterman said. “Second, we believe the data shows particularly those children in elementary school have less symptoms.”
Asymptomatic people can still spread the virus, and in areas like Canyon County – where there are more than 417 new coronavirus cases for every 100,000 people – robust testing is needed, he said.
“That is very high, and based on that you have to be prepared to test those that have close contact to those that are positive. They should be tested if we have any chance of stopping the spread of that disease,” Peterman said.
Officials with Central District Health – the public health department that serves the Boise region and Ada, Elmore and Valley counties – said the new CDC guidelines are more of a clarification than a change.
The district doesn’t normally test asymptomatic people who have had close contact with infected people. It also doesn’t routinely test people who live with infected people who have developed symptoms, said CDH spokesman Brandon Atkins, because they’re automatically considered as probable cases.
Instead, those who have come in contact with someone confirmed to have the coronavirus but who have no symptoms should quarantine themselves for 14 days, Atkins said.
Delays in test results have meant that some people finish the quarantine period before they get results. Atkins said many tests are now coming back within 48 hours, but some are still delayed a week or more.
Results from Primary Health are coming in quicker, between 24 and 48 hours, Peterman said.
“We have capacity and we’re not turning anyone away,” he said.
Experts say wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and staying quarantined after COVID-19 exposure are critical steps for stopping the spread of the virus. Now, more than six months into the pandemic, people weary of the rules could become complacent, especially as the number of new cases begins to flatten.
“Don’t look at the recent trends and numbers and conclude that we’re winning,” Dr. Jim Souza, St. Luke’s Health System chief medical officer, said Tuesday. “Look at our recent trends and conclude that it’s working.”
As schools reopen, there will be coronavirus exposures in classrooms, Peterman said. That doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t work on resuming classes, he said, but rather that they need to be fully prepared to deal with positive cases.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. There will be positive cases,” Peterman said. “And the question is, are we prepared to take the actions that are necessary to make sure it doesn’t spread.”
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