Testing and contact tracing backlogs causing frustration in Yolo County

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Testing and contact tracing — two key components in the battle to stop the spread of COVID-19 — continue to be sources of frustration both for health officials and members of the public.

Complaints have been raised about long lines and wait times for testing as well as the lag time some are seeing before test results are received.

Yolo County officials have said in some cases people are waiting a week or more for results.

That, in turn, complicates the job of contact tracers who face a delay in investigating who may have been exposed and stopping outbreaks sooner rather than later.

State officials have indicated the problem lies, in part, in the large increase in testing which has led to a large backlog of tests that need to be processed.

“Our testing capacity has increased exponentially in recent months,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California Health and Human Services, said Tuesday.

“At the same time, new national supply chain challenges and large volumes of specimens sent to commercial laboratories have resulted in growing delays in processing times.”

As a result, Ghaly announced on Tuesday new guidelines for testing aimed at prioritizing those deemed most at risk.

Specifically, the state’s focus will be on testing hospitalized individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 and people being tested as part of the investigation and management of outbreaks.

The testing guidance also prioritizes any individuals who have COVID-19 symptoms and individuals without symptoms who fall into high-risk categories, including people who live and work in nursing homes, homeless shelters and prisons, healthcare workers, and patients in hospitals.

The state said the new guidance — which largely mirrors the testing guidance in place at the beginning of the pandemic — will ensure that Californians who most need tests get them, even if there are limited supplies.

“We must do this so that testing is readily available and affordable to those who need it, especially those communities experiencing the worst impacts of COVID-19 and those who are at the highest risk,” Ghaly said.

Meanwhile, healthcare providers will be asked to provide more testing in their offices.

With more providers performing tests in the office rather than referring patients to labs or testing sites, the state would have more resources to focus on underserved and high-risk populations, the thinking goes.

“Testing is a responsibility of our entire healthcare delivery system,” said Ghaly. “Clinics, doctors and other care sites should provide convenient testing to their patients who need a test.”

That said, testing will continue to be more widely available in Yolo County.

Since May, the state has provided free testing via OptumServe due to the underserved populations that exist in Yolo County. However, that testing is available to anyone.

OptumServe testing will continue in West Sacramento until the end of July when it will move back to Woodland for four weeks.

The city of Woodland is experiencing a surge in cases in the last month, now accounting for half of all cases in the county to date.

Beginning July 28, the new OptumServe testing site will be at Woodland Community College with appointments available Tuesdays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. by calling 888-634-1123 or completing an online application at https://lhi.care/covidtesting.

The testing is open to anyone in the community regardless of documentation status and all ages are now welcome.

“We encourage community members to take advantage of this opportunity to obtain free testing locally,” said Yolo County Supervisor Gary Sandy of Woodland.

“Safeguarding against COVID-19 is everyone’s responsibility,” Sandy said. “Testing is particularly important if you’ve been in a large group setting or with friends and family who reside outside Yolo County.”

But testing remains only one of the tools used in controlling a pandemic — contact tracing that tracks down those who may have been exposed to the virus before they can expose others remains critical. Once contacted, they are urged to get tested and quarantine until they receive their results.

Ghaly said Tuesday that contact tracing with the level of transmission being seen right now across the state “is much, much more difficult” given the sheer numbers involved, but that it can still be an effective mode of suppressing transmission.

To that end, county officials again on Tuesday called on residents to cooperate if they are called by contact tracers.

“In the last two weeks, more and more people have not responded to our contact tracing calls or refused to cooperate in isolation or quarantine,” said county spokeswoman Jenny Tan.

“It is so important that when you are contacted or called by a legitimate county staff person about contact tracing or being a confirmed case, that you do answer the questions and either isolate or quarantine,” she said Tuesday. “Contact tracing is such an important step in our work to be able to control and slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

However, Tan noted, “this work is not done in a bubble and we need your help.”

The difficulties the county’s contact tracers are facing are evident in a simple statistic: on Monday, 68 county residents were in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. But that’s just a fraction of the more than 400 people who have tested positive in the last two weeks.

Tan’s colleague, public information officer Carolyn Jhajj, said Monday there are several reasons why a small number of those who tested positive recently are isolating right now.

The lag in receiving test results is one, she said, with some individuals being past the isolation period by the time their results are received.

Another is the backlog in contacting recent cases.

But there are also those individuals not cooperating or responding to contact tracers.

“So please, answer the questions and isolate or quarantine if asked to,” said Tan.

The Winters Express is offering coverage related to the coronavirus pandemic free to readers as a community service. The work of our journalists to produce local coverage of the issues is, of course, not free. To support local journalism, please subscribe.

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