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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Can you get tested in Whatcom County? Maybe.

Tests are still scarce, but available at local clinics and WWU's Student Health Center

By Jordan Kiel

While COVID-19 testing is still limited in Whatcom County, some tests are available. 

Health-care professionals, people who have had close contact with confirmed cases, people with severe or worsening respiratory infections and people at high risk for severe illness are being prioritized for testing in Whatcom County.

Western students can now get tested at the Student Health Center. Students can start by placing a call to the Student Health Center and answering a series of questions to determine their risk of exposure. The health center is also offering a COVID-19 self-reporting form to notify the Student Health Center of people believed to be affected. Based on the testing results and self-reporting information, the Student Health Center administration will determine how to address the needs of the communities on campus. 

Melissa Quillin, a third-year music education major at Western, said she went to the Student Health Center on Friday, March 13, for shortness of breath. While there, doctors at the health center decided to test her for both the flu and COVID-19. Quillin said the process was quick and easy.

“I felt pretty good,” Quillin said. “The doctor was talking to me the whole time and making sure I wasn’t freaking out, but I was already pretty calm.”

Quillin said that considering there are still students on campus, she wishes Western would tell students how many people have gone through the process of testing through the Student Health Center. As of Monday, March 16, the Student Health Center reports 10 negative results and zero positive results.

But limited testing results in limited data at a time when researchers are scrambling to understand the novel coronavirus. As Andreas Backhaus, a research fellow in the Economic Policy Unit of the Centre for European Policy Studies pointed out in a viral Medium post, many young people appear to be asymptomatic carriers of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes the illness COVID-19, according to data from South Korea, where testing is widespread.

Backhaus, an economist and data scientist, noted that testing only symptomatic cases skews the public health community’s understanding of the new virus.

https://twitter.com/AndreasShrugged/status/1238554954652102656

Like Western, the Whatcom County Health Department website directs people to first call their local healthcare providers if they think they need to be tested. People who are uninsured should call Washington Health Benefits Exchange or Unity Care NW’s Enrollment Office. 

Washington State’s Office of Insurance Commissioner has ordered that all state regulated health plans waive copays and deductibles for people who are required to get tested, but charges will still apply if treatment is required. Patients may also be charged for emergency room fees and other respiratory illness tests.

According to the Whatcom County’s Department of Health’s website, individuals at a high risk are those over the age of 60, people with chronic medical conditions or a weakened immune system and individuals who are pregnant. Those in high-risk groups who are sick with a fever, cough or shortness of breath are encouraged to call their healthcare providers to find out if they should be tested. 

“Currently, anyone with a fever and cough should assume their illness could be COVID-19 and take steps to protect others in the community and household from the disease. If you are sick, you need to stay home and stay away from other people in your home. If you need to go into public to visit a healthcare provider, wear a mask and practice meticulous hand washing,” according to the Washington State Department of Health website. 

Because the majority of cases are mild and there is no medicine for COVID-19, healthcare providers give the same advice for those with positive and negative cases dealing with symptoms: stay at home and manage your symptoms in self-isolation if possible. 

There are currently no restrictions in Washington for who can be tested, but local health care providers are using their discretion case by case to determine whether or not testing is necessary. 

Pandora Daugherty, a Bellingham nursing home housekeeper, said she and her family have been symptomatic for about a week. Daugherty said her wife works with an immunocompromised person whose husband has kidney cancer. She said none of them have been able to get tested because they haven’t been in contact with a confirmed case and don’t need treatment.

Daugherty said she feels like she should be letting people know if she has COVID-19, especially those she works for at the nursing home.

“How will anyone who gets sick from me ever get a true COVID diagnosis if I wasn’t sick when I gave it to them AND I was never diagnosed because the person who gave it to me wasn’t sick … It’s a never ending circle,” Daugherty said in a Facebook message. 

The Washington State Department of Health has provided three guidance documents for people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, people who were exposed to a confirmed case and symptomatic people who have not been exposed

PeaceHealth hospitals, including PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, are currently only testing high-risk people due to a nationwide shortage of testing kits, according to their website. PeaceHealth was not available for comment. 

The Unity Care NW website states that the accessibility for testing is increasing, but it still may not be possible for everyone. According to the site, one should focus on managing symptoms if they are not able to get tested. 

Washington Health Benefits Exchange has a special enrollment period through April 8 for qualified individuals who are uninsured. People can call the customer service line or contact a certified insurance broker or navigator to see if they qualify. 

Unity Care NW and other healthcare providers are stressing that people call ahead if they believe they have COVID-19 in order for their staff to properly prepare. 

Not all healthcare providers are equipped to test for COVID-19, but if a provider determines a person needs testing, the county health department will work out a place for the person to get tested.

As of March 16, test results will be available within 48-72 hours after the sample is submitted, according to the Whatcom County Health Department website.

The Washington State Health Department has set up a call line for questions from the public relating to what is happening in Washington and how the virus is spreading. The call line is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

RELATED STORY: First Western student diagnosed with SARS-COV-2; concerned students ask university for more transparency around testing.

Joshua McKinney contributed reporting. Follow The Western Front on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates. Our full coverage of how the novel coronavirus is affecting Whatcom County is here.

TELL US YOUR STORY: Have you been tested, or had trouble getting tested since March 11? We’d like to track how the community is experiencing this health crisis! Please email westernfrontonline@gmail.com.

If you’re interested in contributing to the Front’s reporting during this crisis, you are invited to participate in our open newsroom project, where experienced reporters and editors will work alongside the community to gather and verify information that leads Whatcom County toward shared solutions. To participate, please fill out this form.

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