More Coronavirus Testing Coming as Orange County Expands Access
Thursday, April 23, 2020
With Coronavirus testing in Orange County still woefully short for a county of 3.2 million people, health officials are launching the OC COVID-19 Testing Network, which is expected to reach residents who might be experiencing symptoms of infection but don’t have insurance, lack a health care provider, or can’t get tested through their provider.
The Orange County Health Care Agency said on April 21, that the network initially will have six health care clinics, with each able to conduct up to 100 tests a day.
The clinics will use what is currently the most common diagnostic procedure, known as polymerase chain-reaction testing, or PCR. The PCR process involves using a cotton swab to collect samples from the nose or throat, which are then examined for gene markers specific to the coronavirus. The PCR process looks for potentially active cases; it is not a blood test and does not check for the antibodies that indicate a person has had coronavirus and recovered.
Health officials said Tuesday that the new centers won’t accept walk-up patients. Instead, people seeking tests need to contact the participating clinics for an appointment. And, once seen, patients will undergo a medical screening for symptoms of COVID-19 to determine eligibility for a test.
The clinics listed on the county’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening web page on Tuesday were: two AltaMed Medical Group clinics in Anaheim and Santa Ana; the Nhan Hoa Comprehensive Health Care Clinic in Garden Grove; and three UCI Health sites.
The county doesn’t identify the cities that will host the UCI Health sites, but UCI Health has been doing drive-up COVID-19 testing at locations in Irvine and Orange, said John Murray, assistant director of communications for UCI Health.
Dr. Nichole Quick, Orange County’s public health officer, cautioned that the expanded testing is subject to the availability of test supplies and equipment.
“Because of continued challenges of obtaining testing supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care providers, testing may be restricted at times to high priority groups as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Quick said in a news release issued by the Health Care Agency on Tuesday morning.
“Residents must make an appointment for testing to assure eligibility and availability of testing.”
The most common COVID-19 symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
The number of people in Orange County tested for COVID-19 has varied wildly from day to day since three people were tested back at the end of February — mainly because of lack of availability and strict protocol imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Initially, only the Orange County public health lab was able to perform and process PCR tests. Commercial labs began to come onboard in early March, but the number of tests never climbed higher than 405 on any one day through most of last month, based on a chart of daily test counts maintained by the Health Care Agency. The number of local tests skyrocketed to 1,163 on March 26, but it has swung dramatically since then, from a low of 136 on April 5 to a high of 1,245 on April 18.
The county report was last updated on April 21, when 717 tests were conducted.
Compared with San Diego County, which has a similar population size of about 3.3 million, Orange County’s COVID-19 testing comes up short: As of April 19, the latest date with testing numbers available from both counties, San Diego County reported a total of 33,904 tests; Orange County reported 17,994.
Orange County Public Health Director David Souleles told the Board of Supervisors at their Tuesday meeting that the testing network is expected to grow to 10 sites over the next two weeks, and that the combined sites will be able to do 1,000 tests a day. By May, it is hoped the network will be able to conduct 2,000 daily tests, Souleles said.
Turn-around time for a test result depends on demand at the labs handling the tests, said Jessica Good, Health Care Agency public information officer. Good said that “at this time” the expectation is for a turn-around time of one to three days.
There will be no out-of-pocket charge to anyone who is tested, but insurance companies may be billed, according to the county.
Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease clinician at UCI Medical Center in Orange, said Tuesday that health care providers have been waiting on expanded testing for some time. Gohil, who is involved in shaping UCI’s hospital response to COVID-19, said testing more of the county’s population should yield a more accurate picture of the spread of coronavirus here and, over the long run, better indicate if the contagion is rising or falling.
Another result of expanded testing could be a better idea of just how lethal Coronavirus can be.
Right now, the number of cases reported to the county (and other health agencies) is a massive undercount, perhaps just one-tenth of the total number of people who have, or have had, coronavirus. That low number of cases makes the death rate look higher than it is.
When testing is more common, and the number of cases is more certain, the lethality of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new Coronavirus, is likely to go down.
“We might find when we test the community that overall cases go up and then there is a more accurate sense of how physiologically damaging” the virus is, Gohil said.
The county will maintain updated information on test site locations, scheduling, and the appointment process online at the COVID-19 Testing and Screening page, which can be found through the HCA’s COVID19 website at ochealthinfo.com/novelcoronavirus, or by calling the HCA’s Health Referral Line at 800-564-8448.
Here’s how to reach the clinics that are currently part of the Testing and Screening Network:
- AltaMed Medical Group in Anaheim or AltaMed Medical Group in Santa Ana: Call 888-499-9303, Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
- Nhan Hoa Comprehensive Health Care Clinic in Garden Grove: Registration is required on the clinic’s website at nhanhoa.org. For questions, call 562-264-6000, Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
- UCI Health: Call 714-456-7002 for information on screening and testing.
Photo: Medical personnel with AltaMed, right, gather information and take the vitals from a patient prior giving them a COVID-19 test at the Bristol Street drive-through clinic in Santa Ana on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Orange County Health Care Agency launches a COVID-19 Testing Network that involves health centers such as AltaMed which are now able to provide diagnostic PCR test to people who are experiencing symptoms but can’t get tested through their health care provider. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)