Containing coronavirus

Coronavirus in America: Where and how health officials test for COVID-19

As the domestic case count rises, US health organizations are ramping up testing for the virus. Here's everything you need to know.

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After weeks of speculation, coronavirus has made its presence felt in the United States. Cases have been identified in New York, Rhode Island, California, and Washington. And the CDC states that “it is likely that at some point, widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur.”

VITAL STATISTICS:

The New York Times reports that as of Tuesday March 3, 2020, there are more than 100 confirmed or presumed positive cases of COVID-19 in the US. Of these, 17 people have been hospitalized, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, and, according to Washington State health officials, there have been 6 deaths due to coronavirus.

A total of 15 states are affected by the virus. Washington is the most affected, having declared a state of emergency after six people infected with COVID-19 in the state died. Florida has also declared a state of emergency.

According to the latest numbers from the World Health Organization, released Monday March 2, the global number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 stands at 88,948. Some 65 countries, including China, are affected by the virus.

THE RISK:

Most people who get COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, including fever, shortness of breath, and a dry cough. Approximately 5 percent of cases become critically ill, according to the WHO. The new coronavirus has a mortality rate similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu, of about 2.5 percent.

To avoid contracting the virus, experts recommend regularly washing your hands, for at least 20 seconds, under warm water.

THE TERMS:

TheCOVID-19 is part of a family of coronavirus diseases, which also includes MERS-CoV (MERS) and SARS-CoV (SARS).

You may also hear the novel virus referred to as SARS-CoV-2, which is the name of the virus itself, according to a report published in the journal Nature this week. Just like HIV causes the disease AIDS, so does SARS-CoV-2 cause COVID-19.

THE TESTS:

Until recently, the CDC only official organization allowed to test people for the new coronavirus in the US. At first, it did not use the testing kits provided by the WHO. In fact, the CDC mistakenly produced and distributed flawed tests across the US, which has slowed down the roll-out of US-wide testing.

But health organizations across the US have vowed to speed up and expand efforts for testing.

The Trump administration states that 15,000 new testing kits have been distributed in recent days, and there are 50,000 more coming soon. The US Food and Drug Administration has announced a new policy to expedite testing, by allowing clinics to use their own emergency testing methods without having to wait for FDA approval. According to FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn, the FDA has granted an Emergency Use Authorization to two public health laboratories in New York, too.

More testing will likely bring to light more cases of COVID-19 across the US, but this will help better understand how the virus is spreading — and how it can be controlled.

Who is being tested for Coronavirus?

According to the current criteria set by the CDC, you should get tested for coronavirus if:

  • You are feel sick and show symptoms of the virus (fever, cough, difficulty breathing).
  • You have been in close contact with somebody who is known to have COVID-19.
  • You have recently traveled from a location where there are many COVID-19 cases.

If you do have symptoms, don't panic: If you have not been in contact or traveled to any COVID-19 hotspots, you might just have a cold. A test can tell you for sure.

The first step is to call your healthcare provider, and they will help you determine what to do next.

It is unadvised to visit your healthcare provider in-person before you call them. That helps avoid the possibility of contagion.

From there, you may be directed to a specific lab for testing, because you can only be tested at certain locations.

Where can you be tested for Coronavirus?

Ask your personal healthcare provider where you can get tested for coronavirus.

More tests are getting shipped across the country, so more laboratories are becoming equipped to test for COVID-19. Commercial labs are also themselves working on developing more tests. As of writing, most tests in the US were performed in a hospital.

As of February 29th, the Association of Public Health Laboratories’ Scott Becker stated that 31 US Public Health laboratories (and 10 more expected over the weekend) were equipped to test for coronavirus.

So far, less than 500 tests have been performed in the US, the CDC reports. This is a very low number compared with the number of tests performed globally.

In Italy, over 9,000 people have been tested. In the United Kingdom, over 7,000 people have been tested. Emergency legislation suggests that the government will bring recently-retired medical professionals back into office if needed.

In South Korea, which has the second-largest number of cases on a country-wide level, more than 10,000 people have been tested. In the northern city of Goyang, people can go through drive-through testing units: motorists visit a McDonald-like drive through, where medical professionals in protective gear take a swab, then results are returned in three days via SMS.

In fact, healthcare providers in the US are frustrated at the dearth in tests for coronavirus. And there are concerns that the US is widely unprepared for an effective prevention strategy.

Popular Information reporter Judd Legum broke the news on Twitter that the CDC has now stopped disclosing how many coronavirus tests they have performed.

The CDC has also been under fire for releasing an individual from quarantine who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

What does the test involve?

There are various ways to test for coronavirus, and they almost all involve using spit, according to MedlinePlus.

  • Swabbing your throat or nose.
  • Aspirating mucus from your nose.
  • Bronchoscope testing, which involves putting a thin tube down your throat and into your lungs to take a sample.
  • Coughing or spitting up mucus.

There are very few risks involved in these testing methods, and there is nothing special you need to do to prepare to be tested, according to MedlinePlus.

Return of results varies depending on where you are.

New York State officials are working to be able to return coronavirus test results in as few as 12 hours.

In Denver, professionals are working to return test results within 24 hours.

Across the rest of the US, it may take a couple of days to obtain results.

In Singapore and China, there is also a blood test for COVID-19 available. A blood test can identify the infected, and identify people who have coronavirus antibodies, but who don't yet meet the other criteria for a COVID-19 diagnosis — possibly because they were previously infected.

The CDC is also developing serology blood tests for coronavirus antibodies, but these have not yet been put to use in the US.

How much does a COVID-19 test cost?

It depends.

Healthcare insurance organization America's Health Insurance Plans reports that COVID-19 testing is free. The CDC is not billing for testing, so there is no direct cost for consumers, the organization says.

But that is just the test itself. Depending on where you get the test, and what happens after you receive it and your results, there may be other costs associated with COVID-19 testing.

But whether costs could deter people from seeking testing remains to be seen, The Washington Post reports.

To combat these fears, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued a directive to state-based healthcare insurers to waive all fees associated with coronavirus testing.

Fair Health, an organization advocating for fair healthcare costs, has a medical costs calculator that may help estimate your potential costs before you seek treatment.

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