Va. Department of Health significantly expands testing across the state since start of coronavirus pandemic

As the Virginia Department of Health continues to combat the coronavirus pandemic, a number of aspects in regards to testing have changed since the first month.

During a teleconference Wednesday, staff with VDH addressed the new updates to testing, including increasing numbers and types of testing being performed.

Michael Keatts, Northwest Regional emergency planner for VDH, said the state is in a much better place than it was a month ago in regards to testing capacity. 

“The state laboratory began our testing efforts in late February and in that time we were the only lab providing testing,” said Dr. Denise Tony, director of the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services. “Since that time, we have expanded our testing capability and capacity to perform a few tests per week to now having the ability to test more than 600 patients a day.”

Twelve hospitals across Virginia, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University have also started providing testing for the virus, bringing the total from 1,000 tests a day last month to 6,500 people tested per day this month, Keatts said.

The number of testing locations has also increased from 68 testing sites in April to 160 available sites in May. Virginians can use an online mapping tool from VDH that shows the nearest testing location to them based on their location.

There were also two testing sites opened recently through Rite Aid in Virginia Beach and Colonial Heights.

VDH has also broadened testing criteria, making it similar to a recent update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This allows physicians to recommend patients for testing even if they’re not showing symptoms, Keatts said.  

The organization is also working to implement testing for antibodies and performing advanced molecular characterization of samples to monitor the different aspects of the virus that are circulating. 

“Information as to the circulation of these variants and the viral strain [can be used] to determine if public health efforts have been successful,” Tony said.

She later clarified that doesn’t mean there are different strains of the virus, but rather this type of testing allows VDH to look at the genetic sequencing of the virus and see where they are clustered in certain groupings.

Those that are highly similar show a certain level of specificity when doing sequencing which provides data to create cluster maps and help determine where and how the virus may have originated in certain areas.

In partnership with the National Guard, VDH has also started doing point prevalence testing. This type of testing is used in certain facilities to identify the number of people with the virus at a specific point in time. Using this testing, VDH can get a better understanding of who might’ve been exposed to the virus, regardless if they’re showing symptoms.

That testing is starting to be implemented at long-term care facilities and “underserved populations,” Keatts said. 

So far there are 100 care facilities on a list that will be using this testing program in the coming weeks. Keatts was not able to clarify how these facilities were chosen but Marian Hunter, public relations coordinator for VDH, said they were establishments that had outbreaks or a number of severe cases.

Keatts said the program moved to a more proactive approach where facilities can now approach VDH to request Point Prevalence Testing.

Keatts was also not able to determine if this testing provides a significant increase in the overall testing numbers, but it does have some contribution as an average of 75 tests are being performed each day.

As of Wednesday morning, VDH was unable to report the latest numbers related to coronavirus data due to a technical issue on the department’s website.

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