RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — An increasing coronavirus death toll and case count were reported Wednesday in Riverside County as local health officials review the state's new COVID-19 testing guidelines that scale back screenings among certain groups.
A total of 890 new COVID-19 cases were reported countywide Wednesday, bringing the overall figure to 27,371. Of that total, 10,113 people have recovered from the illness.
Twenty-four more people in the county died from COVID-19 complications, setting the death toll at 577.
Hospitalizations stand at 548 patients — 12 more since Tuesday. Out of the total hospitalizations, 141 are in ICU — an increase of five patients since Tuesday.
The number of people tested continues climbing countywide with 3,249 screenings reported Wednesday, bringing the total to 297,638.
Riverside County has been calling on all residents to get tested for COVID-19, whether they show symptoms or not. On Tuesday, however, the state announced new COVID-19 testing guidelines that give priority to vulnerable patients and those with symptoms.
In response to the new California Department of Public Health guidelines, Riverside County is reviewing its testing protocols and "revising accordingly," said Riverside County spokesperson Brooke Federico.
The state's new guidance divides testing into four priority "tiers." The Tier One top priority group includesand people linked to known outbreaks.
Tier Two, or those next in line for testing, includes people with COVID-19 symptoms, as well as asymptomatic individuals who live in congregate settings like skilled nursing facilities, prisons and homeless shelters. Health care workers, first responders, and hospital patients also fall into Tier Two.
Moving down the priority scale is Tier Three, which includes workers in retail, manufacturing, food services, agriculture, public transportation and education.
Everyone else falls into Tier Four, and testing will be available for this group only when "the state's testing turnaround time, as monitored by California Department of Public Health, is less than 48 hours," according to the new state guidelines.
California has averaged 105,000 daily tests over a two-week period, Dr. Mark Ghaly, health and human services secretary, said in a video conference this week. But there have been supply chain challenges and backlogs in commercial laboratories.
LabCorp, which primarily processes Riverside County's COVID-19 tests, admits it's backlogged and is no longer meeting the state's preferred 48-hour turnaround time for test results.
"Until recently, we have been able to deliver test results back to patients on average between 1-2 days from the date of specimen pickup," a LabCorp spokeswoman said in a statement to CNBC this week. "But with significant increases in testing demand and constraints in the availability of supplies and equipment, the average time to deliver results may now be 4-6 days from specimen pickup. For hospitalized patients, the average time for results is faster."
Quest Diagnostics is also experiencing a backlog, which it attributes to demand and the "continuing spread of COVID-19 infections across the nation but particularly in the South, Southwest and West regions of the country."
In a statement released Monday, the company said, "our average turnaround time for reporting test results is slightly more than one day for our priority 1 patients. However, our average turnaround time for all other populations is seven or more days."
In a released statement Monday, Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser expressed concern about the backlog's impact on public perception because reported case counts likely under-represent the county's actual up-to-date total.
“As we struggle with national laboratory issues artificially depressing new case counts, people need to realize we’re far from being out of the woods,” he said.
Even with a lag, Riverside County is experiencing a high positivity rate among tested individuals. County Department of Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the average positivity rate for those screened for the virus countywide is at 20 percent, more than double the preferred state threshold of 8 percent.
"The high positivity rate is something we continue to watch," Saruwatari said.
The latest data from the Emergency Management Department reports the county is at 68.7 percent hospital bed capacity and 98.2 percent ICU bed capacity.
COVID-19 patients in the county's 17 hospitals account for 14.4 percent of the beds, according to Emergency Management Department figures dated July 13.
Six patients from Imperial County and six prison inmates are among the COVID-19 hospitalizations in Riverside County, according to the July 13 data.
Medical personnel dispatched by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are arriving at Eisenhower Health hospital in Rancho Mirage this week to assist with staffing shortages due to an influx of COVID-19 patients.
The roughly 20-person team comprises doctors, physician assistants, critical care nurses and respiratory technicians — who are all active military members.
While the hospital was about 80 percent full as of Tuesday afternoon, officials said they were almost out of available staff members to tend to the remaining beds, let alone the beds that could be created with equipment on-site in the event of a surge.