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First public COVID-19 testing starting in Clark County

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom had a simple message for countries around the time the coronavirus pandemic first began shutting down normal life activities in the United States. “Test, test, test,” he said on March 16. “Test every suspected case.”

Almost two months later, testing in many parts of the U.S. is still very limited, especially in rural areas like central Wisconsin where the COVID-19 virus has caused only sporadic outbreaks and scattered deaths. In Clark County, for example, only 359 people — or roughly 1 percent of the population — had been tested as of May 11. With Gov. Tony Evers’ plan for reopening the state’s economy dependent in part on widespread testing becoming available, it’s questionable as to whether his target date of May 26 to end the current “safer at home” order can be met.

The first public testing availability for Clark County was to take place on May 13 during an 8-hour event at the Thorp High School. However, with this event advertised as open to all citizens of Clark, Chippewa and Taylor counties, local health officials were uncertain if the onetime event would be adequate to meet demand.

“It is unknown the amount of interest that the May 13 testing event will bring,” said Clark County Health Director Brittany Mews. “We are not requiring appointments. Individuals with symptoms can simply show up to be tested. We ask that those who come to be tested prepare for potential wait time. If testing kits run out before the end of the event, those not tested may be turned away.”

The testing was to be limited to only those people who are showing certain symptoms known to be associated with a COVID-19 infection, with pre-screening to eliminate those who weren’t. Still, with the one-time, 8-hour centrally-located event open to a population of almost 120,000 people living in the three counties, it likely will not provide enough testing capability to meet the demand.

Even with limited testing so far, Clark County knows it has a higher prevalence of COVID-19 infection than most of its neighbors. With 24 known cases in its population of 34,500, Clark County has an infection rate of 69.6 cases per 100,000 people. Taylor County, immediately to Clark’s north, has yet to record a single case among its approximately 20,400 residents, with 161 tests administered there through May 11. Chippewa County has tested almost 1,400 people, with 30 positive cases through Monday. With a population of more than 63,500 residents, Chippewa’s infection rate stands at 47.1 cases per 100,000 residents.

Other neighbors of Clark County are also showing lower rates. In Marathon County, the rate is 18.5 infections per 100,000 residents, with 25 positive tests among a population of more than 135,000. Wood County’s rate is 5.5 positives per 100,000 people, with only four cases in a population of more than 73,000. Jackson is the only Clark neighbor with a similar infection rate, at 68.3 (with 14 infections and 510 people tested in a population of 20,500).

Mews said testing has been limited so far by a shortage of needed supplies, as well as local health providers’ practices of requiring potential patients to show significant symptoms before being tested. Multiple providers operating in the county have varied criteria for testing.

“Limitations so far on how many people have been tested for COVID-19 has been due to a nationwide shortage of testing reagents (testing supplies), and a shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment),” Mews said. “As testing supplies and PPE increases, the hope is that more people who need to be tested, can be tested. Before the push for more people to get tested, area testing facilities were focusing on getting those tested who work in congregate settings (healthcare, emergency personnel, etc.) and those in the hospital who have COVID- 19 symptoms. According to Badger Bounce Back, from Governor Tony Evers and the Wisconsin DHS (Department of Health Services), the goal is that every Wisconsin resident who has symptoms of COVID-19 can get a lab test.”

The most direct benefit of more testing is that people who test positive can be isolated from contact with others, thereby limiting the spread of what Mews has described as a “highly contagious” virus. Furthermore, through a process called “contact tracing,” any one who has been in close contact with a person who tests positive can also be quarantined and monitored for symptoms.

Mews said the Clark County Health Department (CCHD) works directly with every known positive patient.

“When someone tests positive for COVID-19, the CCHD is notified,” she said. “The CCHD then determines who is considered a close contact to that positive test person. Those close contacts are notified by the CCHD of their exposure. The CCHD closely monitors those close contacts throughout their quarantine, along with the positive test person throughout their isolation. The CCHD determines when both the positive test person and their close contacts can be released.”

Mews said more widespread testing such as the May 13 event will give offi cials a better idea of how many COVID- 19 cases may actually exist.

“We hope that the testing event will give Public Health a better insight into how widespread COVID-19 is in our communities,” Mews said. “However, a lack of positive cases as a result of this event doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. It means we are doing a great job of limiting contacts and need to keep social distancing.”