Graded on a Curve: Still Time to Ramp Up Coronavirus Testing

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Here we go. The number of coronavirus deaths in the United States exceeded 2000 last Saturday, doubling in just two days as hot zones erupted across the country, from California to New York to New Orleans. This is what an exponential increase feels like. Hang on, it could get steep.

More than 120,000 people have tested positive or are presumed positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, since the first U.S. case was identified on Jan. 21. The U.S. has passed both China and Italy and now leads the world in the number of active cases.

Soon, it will lead in the number of coronavirus deaths. On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has become a household name during the global pandemic, told CNN that current computer models of the outbreak indicate that millions of Americans will be infected with coronavirus and 100,000 to 200,000 people will die.

That was the model’s middle-of-the-road estimate.

So far in California, there are 5733 confirmed coronavirus cases and 122 deaths. In Shasta County, there are four confirmed coronavirus cases and one death. Siskiyou County has two confirmed coronavirus cases; Butte County has five confirmed coronavirus cases and Humboldt County has 14 confirmed coronavirus cases.

As environmental scientist Steve Towers pointed out in A News Café two weeks ago, it’s now likely that there are hundreds of infected people in Shasta County, many of them unknowingly carrying and spreading the virus, because they only suffer mild symptoms from COVID-19, or they’re entirely asymptomatic.

As of this writing, only 190 people have been tested in Shasta County for coronavirus, according to Shasta County Health & Human Services, which admits on its coronavirus website that there’s a testing logjam:

“Right now, the Public Health Lab (along with many other labs across the country) is experiencing a low supply on some of the materials required to perform the COVID-19 test, which are also used to do other tests in the lab. There are enough materials to keep up with the current demand. More materials and supplies have been ordered. Private laboratories are also performing COVID-19 tests.”

Translation: Because lab supplies are limited, coronavirus testing is limited to patients who meet a fairly narrow set of criteria: All the physical symptoms of COVID-19, or contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, or recent travel from a known COVID-19 hot spot.

If you don’t meet any of those criteria and your insurance covers it or you can afford to pay the bill, you can go to a private lab, which apparently is obliged to report only positive results back to SCHHS, not the total number of people who’ve been tested.

Long story short? We still don’t have any idea what the actual number of coronavirus cases is in the county, let alone the country, because the Centers for Disease Control under the Trump administration completely botched the roll-out of its in-house coronavirus test kit.

As reported in excruciating detail by ProPublica, the novel coronavirus caught Trump’s CDC completely flat-footed when it comes to testing response. In contrast, South Korea, which recorded its first infection on the same day as the United States, was able to flatten the exponential growth of the virus via an aggressive testing and quarantine program.

The result, as of right now?

South Korea, 9478 confirmed coronavirus cases, 144 deaths. United States, 124,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, 2221 deaths and rising.

As grim as that score sounds, two epidemiologists told ProPublica that it’s not too late to ramp up coronavirus testing in the United States.

“It is not too late for large-scale testing in the United States to make a significant difference, said Vanderbilt’s William Schaffner and Eric Feigl-Ding, a researcher at Harvard who is also a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. ‘The U.S. doesn’t yet have a runaway epidemic like Wuhan or Italy,’ Ding said. ‘Testing will be part of the containment that will flatten the curve,’ the ongoing effort to slow the pace of infections so the health care system is not overwhelmed by a flood of patients needing intensive care.”

It’s not too late. Of course, that article was written two weeks ago, but, maybe for remote Shasta County, it’s still not yet too late to test more people for novel coronavirus, isolate those who test positive and those who’ve come in contact with them, and contain the outbreak.

Then, maybe we can go back to work.

Until then, stay calm, stay cool and most of all stay home. Unless you’re an essential employee, there’s no need to put yours or anyone else’s life at risk.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at
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