Douglas County currently has no plans to mass test asymptomatic individuals for COVID-19

photo by: Contributed/LMH Health

A COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Lawrence's hospital, LMH Health, is pictured Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Asymptomatic individuals in Douglas County interested in finding out whether they have COVID-19 likely won’t get an answer anytime soon.

Mass testing of asymptomatic individuals is not a priority right now for the health department, leaders said, despite their beliefs that most residents want a black or white answer on whether they have the virus.

“The thing that we worry about with testing is that it could potentially give someone a false sense of security,” said Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Informatics Director Sonia Jordan, who also leads epidemiology efforts for the health department.

Just because a person receives a negative test one day does not mean that person should schedule a trip to visit their grandparents weeks later, Jordan said. Because if someone were to test negative for COVID-19, there’s no assurance that the virus would not still be incubating in that person, or that he or she might not go out the next day and contract the virus.

Linda Craig, director of clinic services for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, also noted the time limitations on the test results. They are really only good for that day, she noted.

“The virus is out there,” she said, and humans can be exposed to it at any time. As of Friday, Douglas County reported 91 cases of COVID-19.

Jordan said, “I think there’s a lot of people that want a black-and-white answer” on whether or not they have COVID-19, but the truth is that “the world we live in right now is a gray world.”

Though testing asymptomatic individuals is not currently the priority of the county, it could become a strategy in the future depending on what new information experts might learn about the virus, Jordan said.

At this point in time, Jordan said it would take an immense amount of planning and resources to do mass testing of asymptomatic individuals, and that at the moment they don’t believe they would find a significant amount of cases from it.

“Instead, we would rather use planning efforts and resources at this point in time to test asymptomatic individuals that we believe are at medium or high risk for COVID-19 exposure,” she said. “It is a situation of maximizing our bandwidth and trying to use our time, energy and resources in the most effective way possible to protect the community.”

In neighboring Johnson County, where there were 1,229 cases as of Friday, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment does periodically offer drive-thru testing for asymptomatic residents.

“By testing a wide range of people, with and without symptoms, it’s possible to find out who in the community is infected with COVID-19 and put appropriate protective measures in place to stop transmission of the virus,” Johnson County’s website states.

In Wyandotte County, where there are 1,872 cases, asymptomatic individuals may receive a COVID-19 test if they have had contact with a positive case or are associated with a known outbreak site, The Kansas City Star reported in mid-May.

George Diepenbrock, spokesman for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said instances in which an asymptomatic individual can be tested for COVID-19 in Douglas County include if they have been exposed to a positive case, reside in congregate living quarters where someone has been exposed to the virus and before some procedures at LMH Health.

COVID-19 testing at LMH Health occurs 48 hours in advance of surgical procedures or invasive medical exams, spokeswoman Amy Northrop said, and is done as an extra layer of protection for the medical staff.

When asked if Douglas County might use any of the $21 million to $24 million they are expected to receive through federal funding on buying COVID-19 tests, Jordan said it is too early in the process to give a definitive answer. Diepenbrock said the Douglas County COVID-19 Recovery Coordination Team will discuss how to use the funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES.

Elderly, high-risk residents exercising caution

Megan Poindexter, executive director of the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County, said many older members of the community are seeking clarity in antibody testing or vaccines before reengaging in the community the way they did before the pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not yet known if having antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 can protect someone from getting infected again, and if so, how long that protection lasts. There is also currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19.

Though many residents are anxious to get back to activities, they also want to be smart in doing so. Poindexter said she hasn’t noticed much of a shift between how high-risk elderly members of the community have approached leaving the house from the beginning of the pandemic to now. The age range of those in the high-risk category for COVID-19 is 65 or older, according to the CDC.

“I think that sometimes it’s easy for us to overlook how many people that encompasses and … not just their needs, but their desire to have their quality of life and to have it safely,” Poindexter said. She also noted that the scope of living situations differs greatly for those in that age group, and that some have more freedom to engage in the community than others.

But Poindexter said she sees resiliency and robustness in this high-risk group’s ability to do what they must to stay safe and keep their families safe. Many grew up during the polio outbreaks in the United States, Poindexter said, and while she believes their desire to see family is growing, they understand the importance of staying safe.

“They are pretty patient folks as a whole,” she said.


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