COVID-19 Testing

Chrissy Bartz, P.A., with Choptank Community Health, prepares to collect a patient’s sample from the part of the throat behind the nose to test for COVID-19. PCR tests, like this one, are regarded as the most reliable.

EASTON — While COVID cases are rising and demand for tests is increasing, hospitals and urgent cares are scrambling to handle the influx of symptomatic patients and requests for tests.

The Star Democrat spoke to Megan Wojtko, MSN, FNP-BC, who serves as the Senior Vice President and Chief Clinical Officer at Choptank Community Health System, to learn more about what health care workers are facing in the holiday COVID case surge.

Q: Tell me about COVID testing right now during this surge. What does the day-to-day look like?

A: Currently, there isn’t enough testing to meet the needs of the community. There are too many people with symptoms or exposures that are trying to get tested and are struggling to find access. It is hard to find home rapid tests now, which has made it worse. Choptank have had to move operations and think out of the box to better meet the testing needs of our patients and even with that, we aren’t keeping up.

Q: People are being discouraged from going to the ER for testing because of high volume. What should people with active symptoms do for testing, and what should people just looking to get a test for travel/work purposes do?

A: If you have symptoms, it is important to get tested. It is difficult to tell the difference between COVID and other illnesses right now, especially the milder cases we are seeing in the vaccinated population.

Health Departments are running clinics, so checking on their website or Facebook page is a good place to start. You can also check with pharmacies. I know home rapid tests are hard to come by right now, but that is a good option too. Some primary care offices, like Choptank Community Health, are testing. But just like Urgent Care, these type of appointments are limited. The ER shouldn’t be where you go for testing, unless you are having more severe symptoms like trouble breathing and chest pain.

The asymptomatic testing for travel or work is hard if you don’t have any known exposures. The same options as above but it is all strained and priority is going to those that are symptomatic and exposed. There are some online options that you can purchase a virtual consult with a home test.

Q: Any trends you’ve seen in the COVID patients coming through?

A: We are seeing a lot of positive COVID results across all ages. After you get one positive in a household, it is spreading easily. And while some are vaccinated or even boosted, those cases tend to be mild and easily managed at home. For those that are not vaccinated, they are sicker. We are still seeing a lot of pneumonia and hospitalizations.

Q: Any trends you anticipate ramping up soon?

A: Cases will keep climbing in the next few weeks. It is spreading too fast. With the high number of cases, it is inevitable that we will have more hospitalizations. It is hitting us hard, but cases and hospitalizations will eventually plateau and then trend down. The strain on the hospitals, urgent cares, health departments, and primary care offices during this surge between patients and our staff being sick, is truly a hardship that we are all struggling with.

Q: What’s something people don’t know about the state of hospitals and urgent cares right now that you think they should know?

A: The number of COVID hospitalizations are higher now than since the pandemic started. We know that vaccinations work to decrease severe COVID infection. Yet a higher number of overall cases with most being unvaccinated people, are going to continue to grow and strain our hospitals.

It is a bad time to need hospital care, whether it is related to COVID or not. There are limited beds and limited staffing. Staff are tired – anything that anyone can do to stay safe and prevent the spread like masking or getting their booster, will help.

Q: Is there any reason someone should NOT get tested?

Not really. Although when and how to use rapid tests can be confusing. Rapid tests are good at determining if you are actively able to infect others at the time of your test. They are a great tool but work the best for symptomatic people within the first 5 days of onset. If you get a negative rapid result, it doesn’t mean that will not get COVID. It is more reassuring if you get a negative rapid result, then take a second rapid test at least 24 hours later and get another negative result.

PCR tests take a couple of days to get the results back, however they miss less and can even detect COVID before symptoms start or with asymptomatic cases.

Q: What about the CDC’s shift in guidelines for quarantining?

We know that you are most infectious the 2 days before symptom onset and the 2-3 days after symptom onset. We also know that most of the spread occurs in that 5-day window. But nothing is perfect and there is still risk.

If everyone follows the new CDC guidance like it is intended, it could be effective. Remember that after your positive result, you can leave isolation at day 5 IF your symptoms have resolved or are improving, but you must be vigilant with wearing masks for an additional 5 days to limit the risk of spreading it to others. If you are still feeling poorly, have shortness of breath, or fever, that is a sign that you could still be infectious and need to stay in isolation for the full 10 days.

The other important piece is with exposures. If you are boosted, you don’t need to quarantine but you need to wear masks for 10 days after exposure. If you are unvaccinated or even vaccinated and eligible for your booster but haven’t gotten it yet, then you should quarantine for 5 days followed by 5 days of wearing a mask. Either way, getting tested around day 5 from exposure is recommended.

Because all of this can be confusing, it is somewhat easier to stick with the 10-day isolation and quarantine if you are able and unsure of what to do. And know that CDC provides recommendations, but state and local health departments determine the isolation/quarantine protocols.

Natalie Jones is a reporter at The Star Democrat in Easton covering crime, health, education and Talbot County Council. You can reach her with questions, comments or tips at njones@chespub.com.

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