Only the really sick people in the local area who had COVID-19-related symptoms got tested for the disease through most of the weeks of the pandemic so far. The message was if you are not sick enough to go see a doctor under normal circumstances, just stay home until the symptoms have passed.
Now the messaging has done a 180.
“Now we’re doing the complete opposite, saying if you have any symptom, go in and get tested,” said Cheri Nickell, Washburn County Public Health officer. “Is it going to ‘waste’ some tests? Yes, but we want to be able to identify the positives and contain the spread. Because otherwise, if we open up and we’re not able to contain the spread, and it gets completely out of control, things are going to have to be tightened up again in a hurry, and none of us want to see that happen.”
As businesses begin reopening while the Safer at Home order remains in effect through May 26, a concerted push in on across the state to test more people for COVID-19.
That push includes a pop-up test site last week in Solon Springs that was hosted by Washburn and Douglas counties.
As businesses reopen, more face-to-face contact is inevitable, and Nickell hopes people continue to practice social distancing.
“It’s still going to be a lot more contact than what it is right now,” Nickell said. “So it’s going to be really important that we identify those [positive] cases as fast as possible.
“If we can test everybody with a symptom and isolate them, and get their contacts and quarantine them, we can keep the virus contained for the most part,” said Nickell.
“We really want to contain this, and the only way we’re going to do it is by testing even mild symptoms,” she said.
With a greater abundance of tests, the capacity to administer the tests and have labs analyze them, and with people getting tested if they have any symptoms, then public health can contact people who have been in close contact with any confirmed cases, which would prevent the disease from spreading more broadly as people begin to frequent businesses and other establishments.
“We’re just in the baby steps of widespread testing, and that goes for all the counties in this region,” Nickell said, so it is unknown how prevalent COVID-19 actually is in the area since people can have it without showing any symptoms.
Nickell said she will be thrilled if widespread testing shows the county truly does have few cases. So far Washburn County has registered one confirmed case of COVID-19.
As “quarantine fatigue” seems to have set in with some people, especially as the weather warms, and Nickell encourages people to get outside, but to keep a distance.
Nickell said she has family, friends, and fellow nurses who want antibody testing, but she said the tests are “relatively meaningless” at this point.
For one, they can signal a false positive, erroneously implying the person “can just happily go throughout the community.” For another, they are not backed by enough evidence yet to know whether a positive means a person actually is immune, and if they are, for how long.
“I think it’ll improve and eventually it’ll be a useful too, but right now, people are just really wanting that antibody test, and it’s just not a useful thing to do at this point,” Nickell said.
Nickell is getting some calls from the public, and many of them center on one topic: Being unhappy with seeing Minnesota license plates, which they see as violations of the Safer at Home order urging people to stay at their primary residence.
“We have a big tourist economy up here, and you don’t want to make them feel like they’re plague carriers,” Nickell said. She stresses that people do not know why they have come. They may be taking care of their parents or their property, for example, which are considered essential activities.
She does advise visitors to bring their supplies with them and to self-isolate for two weeks when they first arrive.