Virginia Health Department officials are blaming supply-chain disruptions and a surge in demand to explain the lack of easily accessible rapid COVID-19 testing for local health departments.
In a call with reporters Tuesday morning, the department’s deputy director of epidemiology, Laurie Forlano, said the department is making progress in securing additional rapid tests. But she said Virginians who have a COVID exposure or symptoms of the virus should quarantine and try to get tested between three and five days after the exposure.
COVID cases have hit historic highs in Virginia and across the United States, with the country reaching over 1 million new cases reported Monday as states cleared a holiday backlog.
Virginia reported a record 19,506 new cases on Sunday, and the state’s seven-day average as of Tuesday stands at 14,409.1 per day, or about 40% higher than the January 2021 peak. Northern Virginia’s seven-day average of new cases topped 5,000 on Tuesday for the first time since the pandemic began.
In Virginia, the limited supply of rapid COVID tests has forced some local health departments and school divisions to look outside of the state’s health department to find new test kits.
In Prince William County, where public schools received over 11,000 PCR tests through the state’s ViSSTA program before the winter break, the local school division used other channels to buy new tests to try to slow the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant at the start of the winter semester, which was scheduled Monday but postponed due to the snowstorm. Last week, officials from Chesapeake County also said they were being forced onto private markets to keep up with demand.
Forlano said the state has been distributing what rapid test kits it does have to libraries, clinics and congregate settings such as nursing homes and jails. VDH has also sent over 140,000 tests to school divisions to send home to potential COVID cases, she added, but state officials are aware of the need for more, especially with the launch of VDH’s new “test-to-stay” pilot program.
Schools that participate in that program can keep students in school even after a close contact with a positive COVID case and administer rapid tests to detect any spread, limiting the amount of school missed. Forlano said the health department has adequate supply of the slower PCR tests and lab capacity to run them, but is lacking in the sought-after rapid tests, which are particularly useful in settings like schools and medical workplaces.
“VDH has experienced supply issues with rapid point-of-care tests across multiple brands. We’ve placed orders that have still not been fulfilled in total. Some of those orders were weeks or months ago, and we are experiencing that and being impacted by that,” Forlano said Tuesday morning. “We do recommend that if you’re able to find the at-home test kits, that you secure those test kits based on your immediate needs, rather than keeping a lot of extras on hand, that will help with the supply issues.”
President Joe Biden announced last month that the federal government would be purchasing over 500 million rapid tests to be sent out to individuals, but those aren’t expected to go out until later this month.
With hospitalizations again on the rise across the commonwealth, Forlano warned Virginians to stay out of emergency rooms unless experiencing a true medical emergency. If you’re concerned that you have COVID or are feeling ill, call a medical professional first. Hospitals in Northern Virginia are already preparing for another surge in patients, with many placing a new round of visitor restrictions on their buildings.
In Northern Virginia, Inova Health System reactivated its “emergency status” on Monday evening in response to rising COVID-19 cases. As part of that activation, Inova has reopened its COVID-19 Coordination Center and hospital command centers, which are staffed seven days a week with a multidisciplinary group of clinical, infection prevention, emergency management and other team members.
Vaccines and boosters have still proven effective at preventing hospitalization and death from Omicron, but the new variant has been far more effective than other strains at evading the first layer of vaccine defense and infecting people. For that reason, many healthcare providers are also juggling staffing shortages because employees are testing positive and high rates.
“We really want to emphasize and encourage individuals to use hospital emergency rooms and those emergency medical services for medical emergencies only right now. When you are ill, consider visiting urgent care or calling your healthcare provider, if you’re mildly ill, for assessment and to talk through testing options,” Forlano said Tuesday. “But emergency room care should really be reserved for those urgent and medical emergencies.”