A COVID-19 test reality check

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NASHVILLE (WDEF) – As we come to grips with more COVID-19 positive tests in our area (2 more in Hamilton County today, 1 in Whitfield County last night), officials brace us for a lot more to come.

And a positive test is not necessarily the best measure of the virus status in your community.

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Here are some things to keep in mind:

Rural Cases

We still don’t have any cases in Southeast Tennessee outside Chattanooga or in northwest Georgia outside of Dalton. But that might not mean as much as we think.

True, rural counties are less exposed to travelers and larger gatherings of people. But they also are less tested.  The tests have been deployed in large cities first and will filter out from there. Both Tennessee and Alabama are using drive-through tests to get quicker numbers, but only in cities. Tennessee only has them around Nashville, so far. Alabama around Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile.

Conventionally speaking, we would expect to see any virus transmitted along Interstates as people move up them, so it’s not hard to see the progression up I 75 from Atlanta to Calhoun and now to Dalton.

New Tests

Dr. Lisa Piercey who is Commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Health is bracing us for a spike of new positive tests.

She says the federal government is sending out faster “throughput tests” that can process up to 1,000 tests in 24 hours.

BARDA Director Rick Bright, Ph.D says “Rapid, high-throughput tests are critical to provide quick results for more Americans and to aid the nationwide public health response.”

But Dr. Piercey predicts they will create a spike in cases as soon as they go into affect in the next week.

However, that doesn’t mean the virus is mushrooming.

“That’s not cause to panic, that’s not cause to rush out and get your own test.”

She says they will just be clearing a backlog of people who were already sick and didn’t know it was COVID-19.

“Please don’t panic when you see this big spike in tests, because these are patients that are already starting to recover.”

Testing Delay

When you hear about an early positive test, remember what that is actually telling us. The protocols for who gets tested and the delay in getting results mean this isn’t “real-time” at all.

For instance, the 2nd case announced today in Chattanooga, came in contact with a positive test person at least two weeks ago.  The “new” case has already experienced symptoms and gotten better (that person is still isolated at home).

Since the number of tests have been short, you couldn’t take one unless you were already showing symptoms or traveled to a high risk area.

The test results take at least 24-48 hours, but the cases we’ve seen so far have been up to a week old.

The goal now is to speed up the process and get more tests to the people.

In the meantime, pay attention to the details