Investigation: Virginia only now recovering from anemic launch of COVID-19 testing program


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – When public health professionals speak of the spread of COVID-19 and flattening the curve, they can also talk about how Virginia is behind the curve when it comes to testing.

They say we won’t know the true impact of COVID-19 without more testing. But of the 50 states, Virginia has ranked 40th or worse per capita.

It’s a combination of a poor start, a lack of resources at the outset and a supply chain with some woefully weak links.

“We’re at the bottom of that list, but it was due to our slow start,” said Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver, who insists the commonwealth has turned a corner. “The absolute numbers of testing we’re doing now is good.”

The state needed more testing capacity when COVID-19 cases began to mount, and the University of Virginia (UVA) became one of the early partners.

“I’ve never experienced anything like COVID in terms of the demand on testing,” said Dr. Amy Mathers, Infectious Disease Specialist for the University of Virginia Health System.

But you can’t conduct COVID tests without COVID test kits, and Mathers blames an unhealthy supply chain.

“Reliance on one single commercial vendor of COVID tests is not proving to be a sustainable way to go,” Mathers said.

In addition to test kits, PPE has been hard to get, along with those giant Q-tips they insert up your nose.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

“You’d think something as simple as a swab would be easy to get when we’re doing this much testing across the country,” said Eric Young, Director of Laboratory Services for Sentara Healthcare. “Those have been very difficult to come across.”

Reliance on single sources for supplies – or eventually a vaccine – can have not just public health consequences, but political ones, too, according to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

“Nothing would be more disastrous than if a vaccination is discovered and suddenly the only source of production is China, or somewhere else where we have some challenging relations,” Warner said.

In addition to UVA, the state health department has partnered with VCU and Sentara here in Hampton Roads to get more tests completed more quickly.

“I have to commend organizations like Sentara, which has done a lot in providing testing in community settings,” Oliver said.

10 On Your Side covered one of those outreach testing clinics last week in Norfolk, an effort to attract Hispanic residents that involved coordination from the Hispanic Resource Center.

RELATED: COVID-19 clinics aim to serve Hispanic community in Hampton Roads

In the beginning of the pandemic, Sentara started by processing a few dozen tests a day, but Young saw the curve growing steeper in March and April.

“Very quickly we realized this was gonna be a much bigger issue,” he recalls.

So, Sentara ordered two machines which Young says have enabled Sentara to process about 1,200 test results daily.

By the end of May, Sentara had processed 30,000 COVID tests. The health commissioner says Virginia is now on a path to perform more tests, and paint a more accurate picture of the spread of COVID.

“We’re gonna be ramping up and doing much, much, much more testing,” Oliver said.

“We know it’s an under-count because we haven’t had enough testing available,” Mathers said of the public health data on the number of COVID cases. “I’m a fan of more testing.”

Warner says COVID testing cries out for a single, national program.

“To try to have every state set up their own testing regime and compete for the testing equipment and testing sources makes no sense,” he said.

Everyone interviewed for this report agreed that among the lessons learned from Virginia’s testing rollout is the need to diversify the supply chain, to get multiple sources for badly needed testing items.

Oliver and Mathers also wanted to remind people that a COVID test result is just a snapshot of your health at a particular moment, and testing in and of itself doesn’t protect you from the disease.

To find the nearest testing site and schedule, use this interactive map.

Related Links

Coverage of Coronavirus in Virginia
Coverage of Coronavirus in North Carolina
Interactive Map: Key COVID-19 Numbers in Virginia

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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