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As Md. expands testing, questions and uncertainty abound

Laurie Kuypers, a registered nurse, reaches into a car to take a nasopharyngeal swab from a patient at a drive-through COVID-19 coronavirus testing station for University of Washington Medicine patients Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Seattle. The appointment-only drive-through clinic began a day earlier. Health authorities in Washington reported more COVID19 deaths in the state that has been hardest hit by the outbreak. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Laurie Kuypers, a registered nurse, reaches into a car to take a nasopharyngeal swab from a patient at a drive-through COVID-19 coronavirus testing station for University of Washington Medicine patients Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Seattle. The appointment-only drive-through clinic began a day earlier. Health authorities in Washington reported more COVID19 deaths in the state that has been hardest hit by the outbreak. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Maryland will open three drive-up COVID-19 testing sites at vehicle emissions testing stations Wednesday, adding to an existing site at FedEx Field, but it remains unclear what the state’s testing capacity is and whether it would expand anytime in the future.

Drive-up testing is only for patients who have received a doctor’s recommendation and have an appointment. The purpose of sites is to keep potentially ill patients from coming in contact with others in hospital emergency departments and doctor offices.

“As the number of cases rise in Maryland, we are opening these sites to keep pace with the demand for testing. These sites are for residents who are symptomatic and in high risk categories for developing serious illness,” Governor Larry Hogan said Monday. “Like every other state in the nation, we simply do not have enough testing supplies. We need to use our resources wisely.”

The health department did not respond to questions Tuesday about current testing capacity in the state, how many tests would be available at these sites and whether testing at the sites could expand in the future.

It’s also unclear what, to any extent, there is heightened testing for Maryland health care workers — the vital first responders to the virus who have been infected by the thousands in Europe and in New York.

As of Tuesday, Maryland had 1,660 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 14,868 negative test results.

For nearly a month Hogan and other state officials have said more testing is needed but that the capacity to provide tests — including supplies and the ability to run the tests — has been limited. What capacity the state does have has been unclear at times.

Even when the state orders new tests, it may not receive them. Last week, state Health Secretary Robert “Bobby” Neall told lawmakers that the state had ordered 4,000 test kits from the federal government but hadn’t received them as of Wednesday. Most other states have reported similar issues getting tests from the federal government.

Hogan told CNN Tuesday that without testing, states are “flying blind.”

“We’re sort of guessing about where the outbreaks are and about what the infection rate and the hospitalization rates are and the mortality rates,” Hogan told CNN Tuesday morning. “So we have a pretty good understanding based on a small amount of data.”

The state public health lab has been doing some of the testing, while private and hospital labs have handled other testing. This has also led to a disparity in when test results are known.

The state lab can typically return results within 24 hours, state officials have said, while private labs return results in about 5 days.

Testing to date has been reserved for people who are showing symptoms.

Focusing the testing on people who have symptoms has helped the state find positive cases, Fran Phillips, deputy state health secretary, said Monday. The state’s tests have gone from returning 3% positive cases to 11%, she said.

“We don’t want to waste these tests,” she said. “We want to test where it’s really important to the individual and to the contact tracing that we’re doing in order to stop the spread.”

The new testing sites will open at the vehicle emissions inspection sites in Bel Air, Glen Burnie and Waldorf. The Glen Burnie and Waldorf sites will be run by the state department of health. The Bel Air site will be run by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health.

The fourth site at FedEx Field in Landover opened Monday and is being run by the Maryland National Guard and the University of Maryland Medical System.

“We are focused on testing people who really need it and by using these sites, we can allow them to be tested away from busy emergency rooms, urgent care centers and physicians’ offices,” Phillips said Monday. “People with no symptoms or who are mildly ill do not need testing. Most people who get this virus can recover at home with rest, fluids and over-the-counter fever reducers.”

What data the state can report has also been limited. For most of March, the state reported the number of people who had tested positive. Last week it added the ability to see how many hospitalizations had occurred in the state and this week it started showing how many negative test results had been returned after several weeks without reporting those numbers.

Daily Record government affairs reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this story.

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