The ability to offer rapid testing for COVID-19 is slowly becoming more available in La Plata County, an important tool that could help in the strategy to contain the virus, health official say.
Bryan Vincent, CEO and co-owner of Durango Urgent Care, said the facility has been trying to acquire rapid tests for a couple months, but the kits were in short supply as major hospitals around the country were prioritized.
Michelle Roach, director of operations at Cedar Diagnostics, said the lab has had the instrument to conduct the test for years, but the lab is low on the priority list for actually receiving the kits.
“They view urgent care and emergency departments as more important than reference labs, which is true most of the time,” Roach said.
About two weeks ago, the first rapid test kits to arrive in La Plata County were sent to Durango Urgent Care, Vincent said. So far, the center has conducted about 60 tests, waiting to make the service public until the system was in place.
But now, Vincent said Durango Urgent Care is able to offer a rapid test to anyone who wants one. He said there are means for both insured and uninsured people to receive the test free of charge.
“We’re pretty squared away right now,” Vincent said of the urgent care’s number of available tests.
Whereas the standard PCR test offered at places like the La Plata County Fairgrounds can take anywhere from two to six days to get results, a rapid test will show a result in 15 to 20 minutes, Vincent said.
The tests are done by nasal swab, though not as intensive as the standard COVID-19 test, Vincent said. The test is called a BD Veritor antigen test, and has a 99% accuracy for positive cases, and a 98.2% accuracy for negative cases.
“Everyone has been very happy about getting results instantaneously,” Vincent said.
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said rapid tests are extremely effective for identifying positive cases, but not so much for confirming a negative case.
As a result, anyone who is potentially exposed or showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, but tests negative on a rapid test, is asked to take the PCR test and follow best practices such as social distancing and wearing a mask.
“Because they cannot be used to rule out a negative result, please do not get a rapid test and believe the negative result means you can safely visit grandparents for the holidays,” she said.
Even if someone tests negative on the PCR test, health officials never rely on a negative test to clear someone to visit family, because the person could have been exposed hours before the test, which wouldn’t show on the results, Jollon said.
That reality may be an especially hard pill to swallow as Christmas approaches, but it’s an important message to reduce the spread of the virus and ensure family members are here next year after people can get vaccinated, she said.
“The right thing to do this holiday season is to follow all the precautions so we spread as little infection as possible,” Jollon said.
But rapid tests are an important tool in the tool box for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jollon said.
With an abundant ability to rapid test frequently, health officials can identify positive cases and outbreaks more quickly, and then act accordingly, such as moving people into isolation or quarantine.
Though rapid tests are not widely available quite yet, it is a strategy many health officials across the country see as an effective one to eventually apply to high-risk locations, such as nursing homes, schools and jails.
In fact, SJBPH has partnered with the La Plata County Jail to start offering rapid testing on inmates next week.
“SJBPH believes that testing is one of the most important tools we have to control COVID-19, and we appreciate the opportunity to provide tests to the La Plata County detention facility,” said Tiffany Switzer, interim deputy director and operations section chief for the COVID-19 response.
Since the pandemic started, inmates booked into the La Plata County Jail have been given the standard PCR test, and then placed into different isolation housing units until those tests come back in a few days, said jail Capt. Ed Aber.
But starting next week, inmates will be booked and given a rapid test, with results in about 15 minutes.
Inmates who test positive will immediately be placed in isolation. Inmates who test negative, however, will still be placed in separate quarantine housing while the more definitive PCR test is conducted and tests results arrive.
“It’s going to give us a better picture of those potentially COVID-positive, so they can then be housed in isolation housing and create a safer environment for everyone else,” Aber said. “It’s a great screening tool.”
At high-risk locations, Jollon said the virus can spread throughout a facility before positive cases with symptoms are even identified. But with frequent high-risk testing every day or so, outbreaks could be nipped in the bud.
The goal of many health departments is to set up a structure where rapid testing is performed every day or so at high-risk places. In La Plata County, that agency would be SJBPH, though the capacity is not quite there yet, Jollon said.
“We hope to apply it in other places where it makes sense,” she said.
A representative at Animas Surgical Hospital said it does not have rapid testing available. A spokeswoman with Mercy Regional Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment.