OLYMPIA, WA — Washington has seen a surge in residents signing up for COVID-19 testing — so many that the state Department of Health is having difficulty keeping up with them all.
Over the past few days, Washingtonians have been flocking to testing sites across the state. Many are taking the test in the hopes that they'll receive a negative result, hypothetically clearing them to travel for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. The state says, that isn't particularly helpful because no one should be traveling this holiday either way.
In a statement Friday, the DOH urged residents to avoid testing unless they were already showing COVID-19 symptoms:
"Demand for COVID-19 testing has increased across the state of Washington as disease transmission continues to rise. To ensure testing access for Washingtonians with COVID-like symptoms or those who have had close contacts, we are asking the general public to not seek screening tests to attend Thanksgiving celebrations."
By Saturday, the DOH said they'd seen such an influx of coronavirus tests, they have to change how they're logging all that data.
Health officials say, normally, their system can receive and process roughly 33,000 test results each day. For the past few days however, the surge in testing has left them with between 30 to 50,000 tests every single day, causing a backlog in their data reporting.
To adapt, the state says going forward they'll have to stop logging the number of negative tests, which they hope will free them up to report and track confirmed coronavirus cases. Going forward, that means daily updates will include the number of positive cases, but not the number of daily tests or the positivity rate.
It's a bit of a hiccup for the system: the positivity rate is one of the key metrics the state uses to track how well it's handling the coronavirus pandemic. According to the latest update to their COVID-19 Risk Assessment Dashboard, about 7.9 percent of COVID-19 tests came back positive over the past week. The goal is to contain the pandemic until fewer than 2 percent of tests come back positive.
The DOH says their change in parameters will hopefully allow them to clear up the backlog they've built up. Right now, there are 53,000 backlogged testing results, which they describe as "a mix of negative and positive COVID-19 tests, and test results for other notifiable conditions such as tuberculosis." That backlog caused them to underreport the actual number of confirmed coronavirus infections — notable because, even with the underreporting issue the state surpassed 2,000 COVID-19 cases Friday.
As the DOH explains, they hope to be up-to-date soon:
"The backlog of results means that the number of new COVID-19 cases reported the last two days is an undercount and likely does not reflect disease trends. Our temporary action will ensure we receive positive COVID-19 results and the DOH dashboard of the epidemiologic curve and the Governor’s Risk Assessment dashboard of the rate per 100,000 newly diagnosed cases reflect disease trends."
Bottom line: the backlog will be cleared and the data will be updated to become accurate, but officials don't want to have to deal with this going forward. To avoid another backlog, officials stress that, again, no one should be seeing COVID-19 tests unless they already have symptoms, and even if you receive a negative test you should be staying home for the holidays.
"We're asking people to forgo their holiday plans, to stay away from their friends and family, and really right now, to reserve tests for people who have symptoms and who are close contacts...but not to get an 'it's okay to go out and about safety check," said Dr. Charissa Fotinos, who leads testing efforts statewide.