San Diego

COVID-19 Tests Are Key to Relaxing Lockdown, But Testing System is Flawed

“Right now, we’re flying blind,” said one doctor

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The future we all hope for -- a return to work, school, and group gatherings ---depends heavily on our ability to test huge numbers of San Diego residents for COVID-19.

More tests are now available, so NBC 7 Investigates took a closer look at two very important issues: who’s in charge of test quality, and who is keeping track of the results.

Some experts also warn that the current testing effort needs much improvement. “We’re really flying blind,” said Dr. Georgine Nanos, in response to a question about when the COVID-19 test will be widely available. 

Many healthcare providers offer the test, but some San Diegans are going straight to the source, shelling out cash at “pop-up” test clinics, including a private, drive-thru test site in Cardiff, where a line of drivers waited for a test this week even after county health officials ordered the company to shut down.

Another local patient told NBC 7 Investigates she never found out if her serious illness was COVID-19 or just the seasonal flu. College student Ana Bucardo said she was sick for months. Her doctor told her to self-isolate but never gave her the test.

“The fact that throughout this whole time I could have contaminated so many people, it just makes you mad,” Bucardo said. “It makes you so mad for the people who are not young, for the people who can't recover and who end up in hospitals."

But for all its shortcomings, experts agree that -- at least for now -- testing is the only way we’ll get back towards normal.

On Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom said widespread testing is crucial to California’s ability to relax the stay-at-home order. “Science and public health, not politics, must be the guide,” Newsom said. “The most important framework is to expand our testing.”

Currently, the testing process works like this: when you get tested, swabs or samples are sent to a certified lab. The California Department of Public Health told NBC 7 there are many different labs that are pumping out COVID-19 test results, including health providers, academic centers, and state and county-run labs.

But all of them must report any positive test results within an hour to our county public health department, which sends those results to the state.

The test results are also shared with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The county public health department also said it’s laser-focused on expanding testing of the most vulnerable groups, including the homeless now staying at San Diego’s bayside convention center, and nursing home residents.

“We’re trying to direct our testing capacity to those groups, and hope to expand it to everyone, sometime later on,” said Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director for epidemiology and immunizations.

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