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News >  Spokane

Dozens of Spokane County residents being tested for COVID-19 to determine if disease is here

March 6, 2020 Updated Fri., March 6, 2020 at 10:20 p.m.

An employee of the Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratories' Virginia Public Health Labratory adds chemicals in the second step of testing a sample for the coronavirus at the lab in Richmond, Va., on Wednesday. (JOE MAHONEY / AP)
An employee of the Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratories' Virginia Public Health Labratory adds chemicals in the second step of testing a sample for the coronavirus at the lab in Richmond, Va., on Wednesday. (JOE MAHONEY / AP)

Dozens of Spokane County residents are being tested for COVID-19 in order to determine if the respiratory disease has come to the Spokane area, local health officials say.

The only test of a Spokane County resident, for the virus for which results have come back, was negative.

After the expansion of testing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, health care providers were able to take samples and submit them for testing at not only the state public health lab in Shoreline, Washington, but also at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s lab.

“We want (the community) to look at this not as we have a lot of COVID here but that our providers are trying to evaluate people for that risk,” said Mark Springer, epidemiologist at the Spokane Regional Health District. “And it overlaps with flu, so we are going to have to test a lot of people to see if it’s in our community.”

A lot of these tests will likely come back negative, and an increase in testing does not indicate that there is an increased likelihood COVID-19 is in the Spokane community, Springer emphasized. That will only become apparent if a large amount of positive test results come back.

Local health officials expect the novel coronavirus to make its way to Spokane eventually, with 79 confirmed cases and 15 recorded deaths in Washington.

In the Seattle area, there is community spread of the disease, meaning cases have been discovered that are not connected to international travel or known exposure to a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

“I think it is a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if,’” Springer said, when asked about whether the disease would come to Spokane.

Testing people with symptoms of the disease is the best way to sample the community. Symptoms of novel coronavirus include a fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

An estimated 80% of people worldwide who have COVID-19 experience mild symptoms that are similar to a flu-like respiratory disease. Most people are not hospitalized. People with underlying health conditions and those older than 60 are at a higher risk to develop a severe illness if they are infected. About 15% of those with COVID-19 will develop severe infections, requiring oxygen, and 5% of cases are critical, requiring ventilation, according to worldwide estimates from the World Health Organization.

People who are sick are asked to stay home from work or school. Those who think they have symptoms similar to COVID-19 should call their health care provider to discuss testing before going in to an emergency department or clinic.

The virus is thought to spread from person-to-person through contact within 6 feet and via respiratory droplets transmitted by coughing or sneezing. CDC guidance says the virus is thought to be most contagious when a person is symptomatic, although some spread might be possible before a person shows symptoms.

The immediate measures people can take, health officials say, include covering coughs and washing hands, as well as ensuring people stay home when they are sick.

In King County, health officials are recommending that people who are more at risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19 avoid large gatherings or events. Springer echoed those recommendations.

“If you are in an area where there is community transmission, such as Seattle, and you have those risk factors, you should consider staying away from large gatherings,” Springer said.

If a person is exposed to COVID-19, health officials will likely ask them to stay home for 14 days. Health officials encourage residents to put themselves in a position where they could stay home for two weeks without having to worry about going to the store. Additionally, if employers ask employees to work remotely or students are not allowed to go to school, families are asked to make plans for that possibility.

Previously, limited testing kits, demand for testing in Western Washington and strict federal testing guidelines kept health care providers from testing many people with symptoms. Until this week, a person needed to display symptoms as well as have a travel history to another country with community spread of the virus, or exposure to a person with a confirmed case. Now, a provider can order testing for any person showing signs and symptoms compatible with the disease.

When the CDC opened up testing guidelines this week, health care providers began sending samples directly to UW to be tested, alleviating the “bottleneck” at the health district, Springer said.

UW performed 400 tests this week and is expected to take specimens for 1,000 people next week. Positive or inconclusive tests from UW are validated by the state lab or the CDC.

Private lab companies LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics can also take specimens and test for the disease, enabling providers that contract with those companies a seamless way to test their patients.

The expansion of testing has made the tracking of potential “people under investigation” for the disease next to impossible for the health district, since they do not have to send all the tests to the state lab anymore.

“We won’t get notified when somebody submits a sample unless it has a need for public health action,” Springer said.

Regardless of what lab conducts the test, the health district will continue to be notified about positive test results, Springer said.

Separately, some testing is conducted in coordination with the health district and, on Friday night, health officials announced that two Spokane County residents are being tested for COVID-19 through the state lab. Those two people are in isolation until their results come back. Potential contacts of the two residents have been notified, health officials said.

Other counties in northeast Washington have sent samples to UW for testing this week, including for one person in Okanogan County and one person in Adams County. Chelan-Douglas Health District has sent tests for two patients to the state health lab in Shoreline. The Chelan-Douglas Health District activated its emergency response Friday.

Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry counties did not have any pending tests for COVID-19, according to health district officials.

Currently, there are confirmed cases in four counties statewide. The majority of cases statewide are in King County, which has 58. Snohomish County has 19 confirmed cases, and Grant County has one. State health officials confirmed one case in Jefferson County on Friday.

The novel coronavirus has made it east of the Cascades, with the first case confirmed Thursday in Grant County. The person is listed in critical condition at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee. That hospital has tested eight people so far, including the patient. Four tested negative, and the results are still pending for three others.

At least 10 of the 15 deaths reported statewide were residents at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, where an outbreak has led to a rush to test all residents and workers, a lockdown on the facility to visitors and numerous hospitalizations. One of the deaths announced Friday by King County was a man in his 60s who was not a resident at Life Care but had visited there. He died Thursday.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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