Coronavirus testing encouraged

| June 23, 2020 8:28 AM

Dr. Brad Black, health officer for Lincoln County, wants you to get tested for the coronavirus. And then get tested again. And again.

Although interest in coronavirus testing has ebbed locally since fear of the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in early spring, Black said last week that implementing a robust testing system will prove invaluable when the disease springs back up. Such a program would include targeted testing of individuals regularly in contact with the public as well as residents from all walks of life.

“We want to do as much sampling as we can during the summer — we do want to keep an understanding of what level of COVID-19 activity could be going on in the community,” Black said. “If we are able to identify, trace and track that, we can find out if it is spreading very rapidly.”

Black expects a low level of transmission of COVID-19 in Lincoln County during the summer months, though a traveler bringing the coronavirus to the community remains likely, he said.

When that happens, a healthy testing system can help local officials keep tabs on the spread, protect the vulnerable and issue sound community-wide guidance, Black said. To achieve that, officials will need to test employees of salons, restaurants and supermarkets on a regular basis for what’s described as community surveillance.

But Black wants anyone who is willing to schedule regular tests if possible, regardless of whether they feel ill. At least 20 percent of people who contract the coronavirus become asymptomatic carriers, passing it along without ever knowing, Black said.

That’s even more important for people who regularly come into contact with the portion of the population considered especially vulnerable, including those older than 65 and with underlying health complications, such as a heart condition, chronic lung disease or severe obesity.

Anyone who visits with a vulnerable individual ought to get tested on a regular basis, Black said.

“I’ve said all along it’s so important that people see it, the testing, as really for the good of the community,” he said. “I remind them we’re doing this testing because we want to know what’s happening in the community with the virus before it spreads so wildly it impacts our high risk people to a significant degree and overloads our health system.”

That is in line with guidance that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a leading expert on the coronavirus, gave in an interview with the Washington Post on June 18.

“The way we’ll get back to normal is by pulling together to try and end this. And … you have a responsibility for your own health,” he told the Post. “But also, since we live in a big country and in a global community, what we do as individuals will have an impact on the success or not of getting this outbreak under control. So, … please hang in there. [We know] it’s tough. It’s tough for everyone. But remember, we are in this all together. We’re not just separate individual components. We’re in it together.”

Testing and a proactive response, Fauci said, could help the country avoid a second wave of illness coinciding with flu season in the fall and winter. Different states and counties should take approaches tailored to their specific circumstances, he said. But identifying and containing coronavirus cases is a must for avoiding increased death tolls.

“It’s going to depend on your capability and your effectiveness when you do get these little blips of infection, which we will invariably get, that you have the systems, the testing, the manpower to do the identification, isolation and contact tracing,” Fauci said. “If you do, it is not inevitable that you’re going to have a second wave in the fall. Nor is it inevitable that, even now, as we enter the summer and we start to pull back to normalize, you will start to see cases if properly addressed.”

In Lincoln County, health officials have partnered with the Center for Asbestos Related Disease to handle coronavirus testing. Aided by a roughly $30,000 infusion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, they hope to hire a fulltime test coordinator.

That will give officials the ability to take a data driven approach to testing, officials have said in recent weeks. The tests, too, are slightly more convenient than in the early months of the pandemic.

Black said officials have dropped the nasopharyngeal test for an oral swab in an effort to make testing easier on residents.

“We made it an oral test: You swab at the top of the tonsils and you don’t gag,” he said. “It’s a very easy test to do; it’s not as irritating. We don’t want to have anything there that hinders efforts to get tested. We don’t want people not wanting to come because of the nasopharyngeal test.”

Residents interested in getting tested should call the county’s COVID-19 hotline at 406-293-6295. Black said health department officials have a variety of options for residents who either need or want testing.

If you are feeling well, plan on getting a test scheduled several days out, Black said. An individual feeling ill or suffering from coronavirus-like symptoms can expect to get tested much sooner, he said.

Health department staff members will help individuals find the right testing location for them, he said.

Avoid, if possible, visiting a clinic or doctor’s office with COVID-19 symptoms unless, for example, you are struggling with breathing, Black said. The hope is to minimize the opportunity to spread the illness via a medical clinic and also minimize the amount of personal protective gear medical professionals go through per test.

But do get tested, Black said.

“I just hope people understand it’s something where you don’t want to wait,” he said. “You want to be proactive and by doing the testing it’s a positive thing for the community.”