Coronavirus tests en route to Johnson County, will be used on high-risk population

While the 700 test swabs are a welcome bit of good news, its not enough to conduct the random community testing planned by Johnson County. Photo credit Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories.

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Johnson County has procured 700 testing swabs for coronavirus and will shortly begin more testing in high-risk groups such as nursing home residents and staff, said Public Health Director Sanmi Areola.

Areola told county commissioners during a special meeting Monday the swabs should already be in transit from the state health department and Quest Diagnostics.

Although it falls short of the 4,000 tests the county eventually hopes to get, it was a welcome bit of good news for county commissioners who learned of it during a special meeting Monday.

Health officials have been frustrated for nearly two weeks in their efforts to get more testing materials needed to provide an accurate picture of how the disease has progressed in the county. Because of a shortage of kits, testing has been limited to only the sickest people since it was determined that COVID-19 was spreading freely through the county.

Areola plans to concentrate this batch on people with higher risk including nursing home residents and care givers, health care workers, and people working essential jobs like grocery checkers.

The new swabs won’t be enough to do random community testing yet, he said. Areola and the county Department of Health and Environment have engaged a marketing firm to call on a random sample of residents who will be invited to drive-up testing.

Health officials said they hope to capture data on asymptomatic people who might unknowingly spread the disease. Having the information would make it possible to trace their contacts. For that, the health department will need 1,600 more swabs. That testing will be done four times, in groups of 400 each.

In another data-gathering effort, the county will send out a survey so that every resident can report symptoms or lack of them, he said.

Commissioners also learned that Johnson County hospitals have worked to create more bed space and as a result still have capacity to handle coronavirus admissions, although the peak isn’t expected until nearer the end of the month.

Dr. Ryan Jacobsen, head of the county EMS System, said there are 38 COVID-19 admissions in Johnson County hospitals, which have 128 intensive care unit beds. Some residents have been admitted to hospitals outside the county, he added.

Public health officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster added a caveat.

“The hospitals feel they have not used all the capacity they have for ICU beds and ventilators, but that is where they are right now. The question is where’s the curve going to take us in the next two or three weeks?” he said.

The increase in coronavirus cases has been linear so far, but if it suddenly shifts to exponential growth, the county may need more facilities than available right now, he said.

LeMaster added that health care administrators are also considering what to do with COVID-19 patients who can be released from the hospital but still need some rehabilitation. People who come off ventilators need extensive help before being on their own again, he said, but there’s a question whether they should be cared for in rehabilitation facilities where they could spread the disease to the uninfected.