Washoe County COVID-19 Tests Remain Limited

Mar 27, 2020

If you’re starting to feel sick, what do you do? Sore throat, exhaustion, trouble breathing... No doubt at that point you’d have COVID-19 on your mind.

That’s what Reno resident Grace Pickard was thinking two weeks ago. “[It’s] like you have 25 percent lung capacity,” Pickard said. “[I had] chest tightness and, like, shortness of breath and just not wanting to walk around.”

Pickard eventually tested negative for COVID-19, but the whole process, she said, was confusing, and she really had to advocate for herself.

“It’s frustrating not knowing what’s going on, and not knowing if your test is done or if you are clear or not,” she said. Pickard said her boyfriend had been travelling shortly beforehand and was feeling sick too. They had been isolating themselves in their home for a few days at the outset. Then they decided to call the county health district. Pickard said they waited for more than an hour on hold before they finally received guidance.

“They told us to wait for an epidemiologist to assess the risk,” Pickard said, “and they said they would call us back in the afternoon or the next morning.” The couple said they did not receive a call back.

So, they called Renown Regional Medical Center after a couple more days of isolation. The hospital asked them to come in and get tested for strep throat and the flu. According to documents reviewed by KUNR, those tests both came back negative, so their sample was sent to a private lab to be tested for COVID-19.

“In the meantime, I have been hanging at home, not breathing on anyone,” Pickard said. “We got prescribed inhalers and a cough suppressant. Those have helped a lot, and I finally got good sleep last night.”

The two are in their 20's, and they weren’t as worried about their own health. They said they were more worried that they may have transmitted the infection to others. Shortly before they developed symptoms, they were in close contact with family members who are at high risk for developing a serious case of COVID-19.

More than a week after making their first call, the couple got the test results back. Negative for COVID-19, according to the documents. The Washoe County Health District sets the criteria for getting tested within the county, based upon recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“So some of those priorities would include people who are case contacts of known COVID cases that develop symptoms,” said Health District Officer Kevin Dick, “people that are healthcare providers, EMS, law enforcement that have been in contact with COVID cases, as well as in a hospital environment, hospitals sampling for testing for some of their severely ill patients.”

As of Wednesday, Washoe County Health District officials said they have a little more than 300 collection kits left, but they are planning on making more with additional materials they already have.

District officials sent out a statement Thursday night, which said they understand that residents are concerned about the lack of COVID-19 testing in the community. The district is following CDC guidelines by only testing those who are at high risk and said widespread community testing is not realistic because of a lack of supplies.

However, some collection kits are still separately available at private hospitals like Renown. Renown CEO Dr. Tony Slonim declined to say exactly how many kits the hospital has.

“We are testing people right now as it pertains to the guidelines from the CDC and the State Department of Health, as well as the county,” Slonim said, “Anecdotal ideas about how you apply testing are insufficient at times of crisis. We have to make sure that we pause, we bring calm and deliberate decision-making to the conversation if we are going to be successful.”

A good portion of the samples taken at hospitals and through the health district are sent to Dr. Mark Pandori at the Nevada State Laboratory in Reno, where they are tested for COVID-19. Pandori said they have the capability to process more tests.

“We have the ability now to go up towards about 400 tests per day, but we’re not getting that many in,” Pandori said. “We’ve been ranging over the last few days anywhere from 100 to 220 tests coming in per day.”

Researchers from around the world have argued that expanded testing of COVID-19 would help in many ways, including finding out the rate of spread and simply knowing the scope of the disease, in particular for people with COVID-19 who exhibit no symptoms.

As a note of disclosure, Renown is a financial supporter of KUNR.