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SLO Public Health 'implores' medical community to embrace COVID-19 testing

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San Luis Obispo County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein didn't mince words about the urgent need to ramp up local testing for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

In two separate public addresses on March 17, first in front of the SLO County Board of Supervisors and again at an afternoon press briefing, Borenstein urged the entire medical community to "step up" to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now hit the Central Coast.

"Widespread availability of testing is one of the very important ways to manage this," Borenstein said. "Our physicians cannot wash their hands of their obligation to take care of their patients. ... Step up and do all that is necessary."

As of March 17, SLO County Public Health had tested 198 patients for COVID-19 and as of March 18, reported seven cases. Santa Barbara County and Monterey County each had two confirmed cases. Those numbers are expected to dramatically increase as the disease spreads and testing ramps up.

Since the outbreak, the SLO County Public Health lab has taken on the majority of local testing, and has also accommodated patients in Santa Barbara County. Its lab is one of 14 public health labs in California running tests, Borenstein said.

But between the lab's limited capacity (it can run just 50 tests per day) and lags at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in delivering adequate test materials, Borenstein said outpatient doctors and clinics have to do more to facilitate COVID-19 tests.

"Many provider offices have been saying, 'We are not taking care of patients who may have this disease,' and I find that to be unacceptable," Borenstein said. "We are asking them to be part of the solution here."

According to Borenstein, medical providers have cited fears about their office being exposed to the virus (or fears of having possibly contracted the virus unknowingly) as reasons for turning away COVID-19 patients. Borestein emphasized that nurses and physicians have the means to provide care while also taking the necessary precautions with protective gear.

As the outbreak worsens and the county's lab capacity reaches its limit (it's now only testing critically ill hospital patients), the role of private labs is critical. Though none are located in SLO County, private lab sites, run by companies like Quest and LabCorp or academic medical centers, can conduct thousands of tests per day. This private testing "pipeline" has opened up, Borenstein said, and now, the "availability of labs should not be an issue in our community at this time."

"We, like every other community, have not been able to open the floodgates to testing. We never will be able to in a public health laboratory because the mechanisms for performing the testing are quite different than commercial laboratories that can do thousands of tests per day," Borenstein explained.

Borenstein said that there are private labs conducting COVID-19 tests in Los Angeles and beyond. In SLO County's second confirmed case, that individual received his or her test results from a lab in Texas.

As state and local governments continue to issue various orders to enforce social distancing, the goal is to slow the rate of COVID-19 spread as to not overwhelm the health care system. If the number of critical cases spikes too much too quickly, the surge will "push us to the brink," Borenstein said.

If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19—fever, cough, shortness of breath—contact your health care provider immediately.

For local COVID-19 updates, visit readyslo.org or call (805)-543-2444.

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