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Who’s getting tested for coronavirus in Michigan right now, and do we have enough tests?

Courtesty of the Michigan Department of Health and Humans Services

As the new coronavirus spreads around the world -- and right here in Michigan --  an official with the World Health Organization delivered some advice yesterday, saying, "We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case."


But as of Sunday night, demand for testing in Michigan has surpassed the state's capacity to test.

Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou talked with reporter Kate Wells for an update on testing here in the state.

Doug: Hey Kate. Let’s start with what’s happening right now. Who is actually getting tested? And what triggers that? Let’s say you or I start having the most common symptoms -- shortness of breath, cough, fever - -would we be able to get the test?


Kate: Well, maybe. It depends. Because bottom line, we just know that there are not, right now, enough tests to go around.


So different health systems are using different and constantly evolving criteria about who really needs to get tested. It's becoming less about travel and much more like you mentioned about people who, one, have symptoms, but two, are at really high risk for getting ill.


Then there are those that they feel like, you can essentially wait it out at home. You can monitor your symptoms. Let us know how it goes. Quarantine yourself. One doctor that I talked to, Dr. Drew Adams, he's an internist in Traverse City.


He says, “A lot of the people meet the symptom criteria. And we have to either talk about whether it's the flu or decide if it's the flu. But for the most part, we just have to quarantine them for now. Because they certainly could have it, but they're not meeting testing criteria.”


I think that that part can't be stressed enough. That just because somebody is not actually being tested, it doesn't mean the doctor thinks that they're totally in the clear, that they definitely don't have COVID-19. 

It means that with limited resources, they have to make choices and priorities.

Doug: Which could mean that the number of confirmed cases in Michigan that we're seeing are actually sort of falsely deflated?

Kate: It means that they are just the tip of the iceberg. The numbers that we're actually seeing, those are just found cases that have also been confirmed. 


Doug: So what happens if your doctor does think you should be tested? They've ruled out the flu or other illnesses. Do we actually have enough capacity to process the tests?


Kate: I think that’s a really good thing that you mentioned, because when you see the drive-thru, you know, people right now are getting swabbed when they pull up their cars [outside of health systems to be tested for COVID-19,] that's not the actual test. That's just a sample being collected. The test itself happens in a lab. It's a really complicated process. 

So the process that we've had so far, is that really only the state lab has been doing larger scale testing in Michigan. And so if your provider says, “Yes, you should be tested,” then they talk to the local county health department. Then they (the provider, will send the samples via a courier to) take...to the state lab. 

The good news is, the state lab is scaling up. We have more and more commercial testing [becoming available and being utilized by providers.] And you're having places like the University of Michigan say, you know, within a couple weeks, we think we will be able to do this testing onsite in our own lab.

So expect to see those testing numbers go up. But again, that's not going to capture the full picture.

Doug: Governor Whitmer has closed schools. She's closed bars and restaurants. And as of this morning at nine o'clock, indoor gatherings of 50 or more people are going to be prohibited. So the focus is on community spread. And that's the transmission from people who haven't been to known hotspots. What are you hearing about the approach that the Whitmer administration is taking?

Kate: Well, I think that approach, if you're feeling totally fine right now or you're young, it can feel like, “Well, why are all these restaurants and bars closed?” Or it can feel like, you know, your kids have been home for a million years at this point, can’t I just have a playdate? Because we're all going nuts. 

I think what's important to understand is that right now it isn't just about you, especially if you're not at high risk. It is about who you could spread it to. We have all these conversations right now about hospitals and supplies and how many respirators are there, etc. and flattening the curve, not overburdening this health system all at once. 

I was on this call yesterday with the Michigan Health and Hospital Association and reporters were asking them about these shortages, right? How many respirators do we have in the state? [Note: The MHA says it doesn’t track how many respirators are in the state, but is assisting supply managers within various health systems to communicate with each other in case of possible shortages.]

Their Senior Vice President, Laura Appel, was saying while we don't have any supplies or staffing shortages yet, “if we were to allow this virus to spread rampantly, there's probably no amount of that respirators that would be enough. So that's why it's so critical that we take all of the precautions that we are, as difficult as some of them may seem.”


So even if it feels overly restrictive right now, because you feel fine and healthy, the hope is to be able to not overburden that health system all at the same time.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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