University of Washington Medicine has announced that it will temporarily close three COVID-19 testing locations beginning Jan. 4. They will also limit the availability of access to its other nine testing locations in Western Washington to those who are symptomatic or have had a known exposure to COVID-19.
The announcement comes in response to “the highest [positivity rate among testing samples] that I’ve ever seen in our region,” said Geoffrey S. Baird, chair of laboratory medicine and pathology at the UW School of Medicine, in a news conference on Thursday.
Baird referenced a 49% positivity rate at UW Medicine’s Auburn collection site on Dec. 28. For context, the positivity rate at its locations usually rests at around 10%, with spikes of up to 25%.
UW Medicine usually has the capacity to operate at higher volumes through a method Baird described as “pooling:” Samples are aggregated to increase their testing capacity, but with a positivity rate as high as 49%, the process becomes defunct as every pooled sample tests positive, and the practice will need to be abandoned until case rates decline.
To maintain the accuracy of the samples, UW Medicine will have to limit the availability of tests to only those who exhibit respiratory symptoms of the virus or who have a confirmed exposure.
The Ballard, City Hall, and Sammamish community sites operated by UW Medicine in collaboration with the City of Seattle and King County will close temporarily because of capacity limitations.
UW Medicine reports that it has received 10,000 to 15,000 specimens a day for most of December, with 20,000 closer to the Christmas holiday. That will need to be scaled back to 8,000 to 12,000 daily samples.
Tracking omicron with fewer testing locations
Washington State Department of Health officials were asked in a press briefing Thursday how the newly announced limited testing capability will affect the state’s ability to monitor omicron as it spreads throughout King County and Washington.
DOH reports that it has shifted away from counting individual omicron cases toward sampling a percentage of all genomic samples.
The health officials also affirmed that there are a variety of other testing options available, referencing at-home tests through consumer purchase, as well as the direct to consumer test program announced by President Joe Biden.
DOH enhances COVID contact tracing system ahead of expected at-home test influx
Alternatives to PCR testing
In the news briefing, UW Medicine affirmed the accuracy of rapid tests when an individual is symptomatic of COVID-19. The tests are less reliable in cases of simple exposure.
“Rapid tests can give you a false sense of security,” Baird noted. “You can test negative, but you could be infectious at that time, six hours later, or the next day.”
“The recommendation I would have for [rapid] antigen testing is if you have them when you do have some symptoms,” he added.
With access to PCR testing now constrained, and the limited utility of rapid testing outside of symptomatic instances of COVID-19, Baird recommends rethinking holiday gatherings.
“We are in the midst of the worst public health disaster in the history of humanity, in terms of raw numbers of people that have been infected and people that have died,” he continued.
“It’s important to go back, … and remind ourselves that this isn’t really an inconvenience. This is a serious public health problem right now,” he said. “People do want to go back and live out their lives. I certainly want to do the same thing too. But we, as a society, ended up having to make some sacrifices. And there really isn’t too many ways around this. There really isn’t a great, robust testing strategy for dealing with the absolute peak of an incredibly infectious global pandemic viral agent like this.”
KIRO Radio’s Heather Bosch contributed to this report.