Calling it “disturbing,” Jefferson County’s health officer on Thursday joined in the chorus of public health experts nationwide denouncing a shift in guidance on coronavirus testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Tom Locke’s counterpart in Clallam County, however, downplayed the national effect of the change.
“I think it’s less dramatic than it’s coming across,” said Dr. Allison Unthank. “The wording is you don’t necessarily need to get tested if you’ve been in close contact with an infected person. It’s not like they’re saying don’t get tested; they’re just giving people some flexibility.”
Both health officers said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announcement will have no effect on testing on the North Olympic Peninsula or throughout the state.
Prior to the Monday shift, the CDC had advised health departments to test people who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Unthank said the change allows parts of the nation with inadequate testing capacity to use discretion in how those limited resources are used.
“However, in Washington state, we have plenty of capacity,” she said. “Because of that, we recommend people still get tested if they have been exposed to an infected person.”
Locke agreed that the shift is moot in Washington, not only because of the state’s capacity but also because state health officials have said they will proceed with the previous guidance.
Plus, he said, “no one thinks this is a good idea, because it seems to be discouraging testing and runs counter to the science of pandemic control.”
On Wednesday, the state Department of Health tweeted: “If you’re a close contact of a confirmed case, you need to get tested.”
On the same day, Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted that CDC’s new guidance “would cause WA to miss thousands of new cases and allow the virus to spread in our communities.”
Five of Jefferson County’s 12 cases over the past two weeks tested positive while already in quarantine because of their exposure to infected people, Locke said.
“That shows that our contact tracing is working,” he said. “When we identify them in quarantine, we can monitor them and treat them right away if they develop symptoms.”
Testing people based on exposure rather than their symptoms is key, Locke said, because an estimated 40 percent of cases are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, according to the CDC.
“This is how we contain transmission — by testing everyone who has been exposed,” he said.
On Thursday, Clallam County reported three new cases for a total of 206 since March, while Jefferson County reported no new cases for a total of 69 since March.
Unthank said the new cases are linked to an outbreak at a Port Angeles bar earlier this month.
“We’re still seeing the fallout from that,” she said.
Clallam County has a rate of 87 cases per 100,000 population for the two-week period beginning Aug. 11 and ending Monday. Jefferson County’s rate stood at 37.6 per 100,000 population.
Locke said that rate will be recalculated Monday for the period starting Aug. 16 and ending Saturday. He said he expects the rate to fall because only two new cases have been confirmed this week.
While Jefferson County is monitoring just more than 40 people who were exposed to recent cases and has 10 people doing contact tracing, Clallam County is monitoring more than 300 quarantined people — down from more than 400 — and has 38 people doing contact tracing, 30 of whom are volunteers.
Unthank stressed that testing is free for anyone who has been exposed or thinks they have symptoms, regardless of their citizenship status.
Those who suspect they have been exposed should call the county’s Department of Health and Human Services at 360-417-2274, Unthank said.
Those with general questions about COVID-19 in Clallam County should call the Emergency Operations Center at 360-417-2430.
Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend has had a drive-through testing clinic since this spring. To make an appointment, call 360-344-3094.
Both health departments post information on their county websites.
Jefferson County reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by email at [email protected]