NAVAJO COUNTY — The U.S. is limiting testing for the COVID-19 virus to people who have specific symptoms — fever, cough, difficulty breathing. People who have traveled to areas affected by the virus or those who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive are also being tested.
While health experts say not every person can be tested or even needs to be tested for coronavirus, it is difficult for public health officials to get a bead on the number of people with no symptoms who could be spreading the virus, because across the nation there are not enough testing materials available to offer widespread sampling of the population.
But what is the situation locally for testing materials? And just what are the “testing materials” that are needed?
The Independent spoke with Navajo County Public Health Director Jeff Lee to find out.
Lee said that as far as he is aware, currently there have been enough testing materials locally to test those who have needed a test — according to the current testing guidelines.
Just how long those supplies will last, he couldn’t predict.
What supplies are needed and
how much do we have?
There are two sets of supplies needed in order to conduct a test for COVID-19 — the supplies needed to gather a sample — and the supplies used at a laboratory in order to determine if a sample is positive or negative for COVID-19.
Both are in short supply, Lee said.
“The [sampling] supplies (nasal swabs and a transport medium) are supplies that the hospitals and other healthcare facilities are always buying. They are the same supplies that they would use for flu tests or other respiratory tests they would take, so it’s just normal supplies they would have,” he explained.
“They’re not just in short supply because of COVID … we’re right towards the end of flu season, so they’ve been using those swabs all year. They purchased anticipating a flu season, not a flu season then COVID. It’s just nobody’s fault, it’s just bad timing … and now mass quantities are needed across the world so the supply chains are stressed,” he said.
“The supplies needed at the lab … there’s not an abundant amount of it, but right now, if a physician sends a test to the state lab or a private lab, it will be tested,” he explained.
“Mass quantities are needed across the world … there’s just not enough of it right now and manufacturing times are not catching up with the demand … right now laboratories can run all the tests they get. I don’t know how long that will last. I don’t know how long they can keep testing if they don’t get new materials,” he said.
Lee said he was not sure how many tests had been performed in Navajo County, since his office does not track tests submitted to private labs, only tests submitted to the state lab, which must be approved by his office.
State of Arizona testing rate dramatically lower than other states
According to the COVID-19 information page on the website of Arizona Department of Health Services, as of Sunday just 408 Arizonans had been tested through the state lab. How many tests have been conducted through private labs is unclear. Only positive test results from private labs are reported to the state.
Still, compared to other states, Arizona appears to have conducted among the fewest COVID-19 tests in the nation.
According to Politico.com’s Covid Tracking Project, Arizona lags far behind even neighboring states in testing for the virus.
The COVID Tracking Project is a “volunteer-run accounting of every coronavirus test conducted in America,” according to the website. The data comes from each state’s health department websites, “because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t yet begun publicly releasing the number of people who have been tested,” they state. These numbers also may not include data from private lab testing.
Still the differences are striking. Utah has tested 3,689 people. New Mexico has tested 4,779 people, Nevada has tested 2,638 compared to 408 in Arizona.
Just why so few tests have been conducted in Arizona remains unclear.