Restrictive coronavirus testing criteria to be relaxed amid widening Washington outbreak

Mar 3, 2020

As the death toll from the novel coronavirus continues to rise, many people who feel sick are naturally concerned they might have the infection. Until now, a coronavirus test has been difficult to get locally because of limited capacity and strict rules for who qualifies. However, both of those restrictions may relax soon.

Some Seattleites suffering from flu-like symptoms vented on social media over the past day about how they got the runaround when they sought testing for coronavirus. Asked for his reaction Tuesday, Washington State Department of Health Secretary John Wiesman indicated the strict criteria for ordering that test could broaden.

"I expect we're going to see some changes in these, certainly for our area," Weisman said in an interview Tuesday.

To qualify for coronavirus testing today, a patient would need to display fever and respiratory distress combined with a likely exposure to a known infected person or foreign hotspot. Patients in the hospital with severe illness that can't be explained any other way may also be recommended for testing, Wiesman said.

"As we move and see more community transmission here, we are starting to relax those standards," Weisman said. "Now that there are more folks who might have underlying health issues and who have symptoms, more testing might be appropriate. For those folks, what we want to do is first rule out things like flu or other respiratory illnesses, which there are rapid tests for."

Wiesman says testing capacity is increasing with new help from the University of Washington, soon to be augmented further with private testing labs. But in the near term, you won't be able to get tested for coronavirus simply by request without meeting specific criteria.

As of now, a front line doctor in the Evergreen State must seek pre-approval from the state Department of Health to send in a nasal swab or sputum sample for testing for coronavirus, after following a detailed flowchart of case definitions.

"We now have some flexibility, but we need more flexibility," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said at the end of a health clinic tour in Seattle on Tuesday morning.

Inslee said he would communicate a wish for more coronavirus testing capacity to federal health officials during a planned conference call later on Tuesday. The Washington state Department of Health takes its cues on testing protocols from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neither Wiesman nor Inslee detailed how much the testing criteria could be relaxed.

Some other countries with widespread outbreaks have ramped up their testing and disease surveillance broadly. Asian media outlets posted video in recent days of drive-through coronavirus testing stations in South Korea, which are set up in multiple cities.

The state health lab in Shoreline, Washington, currently has the capacity to test samples for coronavirus from about 100 people per day. Positive tests get sent to the federal CDC for confirmation. The University of Washington virology lab can run up to 400 coronavirus tests per day. A UW Medicine spokesman confirmed the lab began diagnostic testing to augment state efforts on Tuesday morning.

Like Washington state, Oregon follows federal guidelines from the CDC about who to test for coronavirus. State Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the state lab has the capacity to test up to 80 people per day and could line up additional testing capacity if needed.

Wiesman said it is understandable that some people are concerned when they can't get a test amid a growing outbreak of a new, incompletely understood disease. On Tuesday, the death toll in the U.S. rose to nine people, all whom passed away in the Seattle area.

"I understand that right now it's scary here because of the number of our deaths," Wiesman said Tuesday. "Look, even though it may not seem that way right now, about 80 percent of the folks it seems who get COVID-19 have really mild disease. We have to keep coming back to that."