After struggling with a shortage of available tests for the coronavirus during the spring and summer, local residents can now find testing sites springing up on parking lots and street corners across Dallas County. The question facing county leaders is whether all those tests and the data they collect are any good.
Dallas County Commissioners Court met this week to discuss a wide range of issues surrounding surging cases of COVID-19. The head of Dallas County Health and Human Services, Dr. Philip Huang, presented the most recent data, and Commissioner Theresa Daniel wanted to know about testing sites and if the county is getting “a better handle” on collecting information.
What she was getting at, subtly, is whether sites that aren't tied to the county, like pop-ups that might set up in a gas station parking lot, are being included in the overall reporting of case numbers. “We still don’t know how many other providers are getting online with that and, again, it’s an ongoing effort,” Huang said.
Commissioner John Wiley Price, not so subtly, pushed back on Huang, “But do you really don't know what’s going on? I see them [COVID testing sites] popping-up at service stations. In Lancaster on Pleasant Run, I see 40 or 50 cars in line. At a service station. ... What's going on?”
Huang explained that there are regulatory and FDA requirements governing testing, but in the end, he told Price: “It’s like the Wild Wild West here with what's been going on with testing.”
“You just answered it,” Price said with sigh, “It’s the Wild Wild West. We really don’t know.”
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, entities that use an FDA-approved test “shall” submit daily results and “must” register with the state. Knowing whether any particular site is following those rules is a challenge, which means it's possible, if not likely, that at least some testing sites aren't legitimate. Back in April, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning: “The fake sites can look real, with legitimate-looking signs, tents, hazmat suits and realistic-looking tests.”
Huang told commissioners this is why he and other medical professionals focus on hospitalization rates, not the number of positive tests. “We're looking at the hospital data, which from day one we said that's the one thing we have daily reports to track,” Huang said. Hospital data is independent of whether people get tested.
Even Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, GA-32, to reopen Texas is tied to the percentage of COVID-19 patients in hospitals compared with other patients: hospital data, not testing. Not to dismiss testing numbers, which allow officials and administrators to track trends, but patients in hospital beds are an indisputable fact.
“How do my constituents, driving by the donut shop, let’s just say, how do they have the security that the person there who is testing is in fact authorized, validated?" Price asked Huang. "I can’t figure it out. When they call me and say one has popped-up here, I say, ‘I don't know anything about it.’”
Huang said they can ask to see if the tests are FDA verified or call his department's hotline (972-692-2780) for information. There' also an interactive map, which indicates if a site has been verified. In a call to the hotline asking about a local gas station pop-up, the employee who answered was able to quickly verify that the company providing the tests is legitimate (GoGetTested.com).
Lauren Trimble, chief of staff for County Judge Clay Jenkins, directs anyone needing a test to use one of the county sites run by Parkland Hospital, which provides free tests by trained healthcare professionals. People can also get a flu shot for free at those sites.
In terms of data used to keep track of daily cases, Trimble says the total is based on confirmed and probable positive test notifications received through the state’s electronic laboratory reporting system and from labs or doctor’s offices that send results directly to the county health office.
On Tuesday, that system appeared to have a glitch. Jenkins' office released a statement that there were only 645 additional cases reported that day, compared with 1,831 the day before. Yhere have been problems with the state’s systems, and that seems to be the case with Tuesday's low numbers.
In other updates, Huang called the direction of the numbers in Dallas County “an alarming concern.” As of Monday, there were 49 ICU beds available in the county and hospitalizations have increased 163% between late September and Nov. 15.
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