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Amid low case numbers, COVID-19 testing and tracking remains a challenge in SLO County

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San Luis Obispo County public health officials don't know how many local residents have been tested for COVID-19 thus far.

They know that more than 750 high-risk patients have been tested at the county's public health lab—yielding 48 positive results as of April 15. They know that 76 patients have tested positive for COVID-19 at private commercial labs. They also know that the rate of confirmed spread in SLO County has slowed down in recent days.

But they don't know how many people in all have been tested and where, so the public remains in the dark about the true prevalence of the illness.

"None of that is good," SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said at a COVID-19 press briefing on April 6. "We'd like to be able to bring to the public a real understanding of how much we are testing. More to the point, we ourselves would very much like to understand what the number of tests are, and what our positive rate is."

TRACKING THE OUTBREAK SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein is asking that local health care providers conduct more COVID-19 tests. - PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo By Peter Johnson
  • TRACKING THE OUTBREAK SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein is asking that local health care providers conduct more COVID-19 tests.

Gaps in COVID-19 test data aren't just an issue in SLO County. Santa Barbara County also has incomplete test data. While Santa Barbara County is reporting more than twice the total number of tests that SLO County is, that's largely because its numbers include tests that have been voluntarily reported by some private Santa Barbara clinicians.

"They're very uncomfortable with their numbers as well," Borenstein said of Santa Barbara, and added about SLO: "I believe that the amount of testing in our county really does not differ from our neighbors."

County officials said that local test data is unavailable mainly because of technical issues with the state's reporting system and the unwieldy volumes of data being generated at various commercial labs.

The issue is not expected to be resolved soon.

"This continues to be a problem," SLO County Public Health spokesperson Michelle Shoresman told New Times via email. "Right now, everyone is focused on finding the positives, isolating, treating, and quarantining."

The incomplete testing data makes it a challenge to accurately gauge the progression of the illness. SLO County's models initially predicted that COVID-19 case numbers would likely double every three to five days. While that bore out for the first two weeks, by late March and early April, new cases in the county came to a virtual halt.

"The reasons for that may be some combination of we're not testing enough and/or we're doing a really good job with the mitigation measures we have in place," Borenstein said on April 6.

New county testing guidelines, which Borenstein announced the same day, now ask the health care community to test any patient who's experiencing even mild COVID-19 symptoms. But many locals have come forward in recent weeks with stories of hitting roadblocks when trying to get tested.

Los Osos resident Quinn Brady said she developed a respiratory infection in late March that was so severe it turned into pneumonia. She experienced intense fatigue, a dry cough, and trouble breathing.

When she went to the Med Stop Urgent Care in the Madonna Shopping Plaza in SLO, Brady said she was denied a COVID-19 test because she didn't meet all the criteria at the time.

"They said, 'You don't have all the symptoms because you don't have a fever,'" Brady said. "I just thought it was really interesting to be sick enough to have pneumonia but not be tested."

Templeton resident Lindsay Pera said she and her family started developing severe COVID-19 symptoms in mid-March—at the start of the local outbreak. Pera called both her primary doctor and SLO County Public Health on March 17 to inquire about testing.

"[We were] told we did not fit the criteria for testing and to 'treat at home, go to the hospital if you can't breathe, but call ahead,'" Pera said.

Grover Beach resident Ben Vorass said he and his girlfriend visited three different health care sites in South County to try to get COVID-19 tests—without success.

"We were told, 'No, go home, ... you don't qualify for the test, you are not bad enough, you are not old enough,' you didn't meet the unmeetable expectations that have now put me and my family at serious risk during this pandemic,'" he said via email.

At the April 6 press briefing, Borenstein acknowledged that the initial guidelines for COVID-19 tests—which strictly limited them based on one's travel history, age, symptom severity, and other factors—may be leading to an undercount.

"We think that perhaps the public has ceased even trying to get a test because early on the message was, 'There aren't enough tests. There aren't enough tests,'" Borenstein said. "We believe that anyone in this county [with symptoms] who wants to get a test at this point can, if they go to the right place." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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