As school superintendents and trustees decide whether to let kids into classrooms, Idaho is collecting less coronavirus data.
For the seven-day period that ended Friday, Idaho received 9,705 coronavirus test results. That’s the lowest weekly total in nearly three months. For much of July, and in early August, the state received about 20,000 test results weekly.
Do school leaders have the information they need to make good decisions?
The state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Christine Hahn, says the state’s data is “robust.” Her key takeaway: Idaho’s coronavirus outbreak is showing signs of receding.
The case numbers back her up. Through July and the first half of August, the state reported more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases a week. For the week ending Friday, the new case count came in at 1,713.
But this decrease in new cases also coincides with decreased testing. The testing data is critical, of course, because it identifies people who are contagious — the key to isolating patients and a starting point for contact tracing. A spike in cases, in turn, points to an outbreak: precisely the kind of data that should inform a school opening decision.
In part, the dropoff reflects consumer demand, Hahn says. Most people who come in for a coronavirus test have some symptoms. The fact that fewer Idahoans are getting tested is, in itself, a sign that coronavirus activity has slowed in recent weeks.
The Central District Health department recognizes the limitations: access, cost and personal choice all factor into the testing rates. Based on the data, CDH last week gave its blessing to a mix of online and face-to-face classes in the West Ada and Boise school districts. (West Ada resumed face-to-face instruction Monday, and Boise will do likewise next week.) And there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of “large pockets of undetected illness” in CDH’s four-county jurisdiction, spokeswoman Christine Myron said Wednesday.
“It is not a perfect way to get a full picture of risk, but it is the best we have for now,” Myron said of the current testing. “Ultimately, we are confident in the data as much as we can be.”
In the six months since Idaho reported its first confirmed coronavirus case, the testing process has been marked by fits and starts.
In the spring, tests were scarce, worrying many health officials.
Supplies increased sharply by summer, but labs scrambled to run samples. Results were delayed by a week or more — a slow turnaround time that renders the data almost useless.
The labs appear to have some “unused capacity” now, Hahn said. But that could vanish come the fall, as the flu season kicks in and more Idahoans seek coronavirus testing. In other words, that could translate into more delayed results, just as school officials are trying to figure out if they can safely keep their buildings open.
And whether Idaho is running 10,000 tests a week or 20,000, let’s not sugarcoat the reality. Idaho is still a long way from where it needs to be.
The Treasure Valley’s two hospitals acknowledge their limitations.
“Testing supplies have improved, although we are focusing on testing symptomatic patients,” said Dr. A. Patrice Burgess, executive medical director for the Saint Alphonsus Health System. “As far as screening in large groups for schools, there is ongoing work with a public-private partnership to provide high-volume, large-scale testing.”
After “limited” increases in testing capacity, the St. Luke’s Health System still can’t offer tests to people who are asymptomatic, even if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus, spokeswoman Anita Kissee said. She referred back to Gov. Brad Little’s testing task force’s report. The group — co-chaired by Dr. Jim Souza, St. Luke’s vice president and chief medical officer, recommended a target of 37,000 tests weekly, and possibly up to 163,200 tests a week.
“The availability and access to testing must be significantly increased to support a well-designed reopening of the state,” the group wrote.
That report was issued on May 20, three months before Idaho’s public schools and colleges and universities embarked on their reopening.
For months, Little has made it clear that he wants to see kids in school for face-to-face instruction. But he also acknowledges that testing has been a challenge in Idaho, and nationally.
“We are focused on making testing more readily available for schools and we are hopeful we will make headway on those efforts in the coming weeks,” spokeswoman Marissa Morrison Hyer said this week. “The governor is confident the state of Idaho, school officials, and health officials will continue to work closely to ensure schools are safe places for learning during the pandemic.”
New technology could help, in time.
Abbott Laboratories’ new nasal swab exam, with the sticker price of $5, could help ramp up testing in schools and long-term care facilities, Hahn said. Overnight saliva tests could come next. The optimum would be a quick turnaround home exam, which would provide parents with a test result before the start of a school day.
“I think we’re a long way from that,” said Hahn, who conceded that a coronavirus vaccine could beat the at-home coronavirus test to the marketplace.
In the meantime, Hahn preaches patience. She likes what she sees from Boise State University, which has developed an online data dashboard for campus testing results. And she says it’s too early to judge how administrators and local health officials are applying the data to school opening decisions.
“I can’t be too dogmatic because we haven’t done this before,” she said. “We don’t know if we’re right. Nobody knows this virus.”
To a large degree, what Idaho does know comes from limited test results.
The latest data: Each Friday, Idaho Education News publishes a weekly summary of coronavirus trends. Look for it here.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.