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Arkansas relaxes criteria for COVID-19 testing

Posted on April 16, 2020

By Siandhara Bonnet
Staff Writer

Sec. of Health Dr. Nate Smith announced a relaxation of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) testing criteria during the daily press briefing Wednesday.

The former criteria to be tested is for those who are health care workers, those in long-term care facilities, hospitalized patients, those who have symptoms and are 65 and older, have underlying medical conditions or have clear risk factors, like exposure to a positive case or have met travel criteria for possible exposure to the virus.

Smith said because testing capacity has expanded and result time has decreased at the Arkansas Department of Health public health lab and the commercial labs, the criteria will now include those with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. The restrictions will continue to loosen as the state reaches and passes its peak number of cases.

As of Wednesday evening, the state has performed 21,834 tests for COVD-19, and Union County had performed 184 tests.

Smith said this will give the state a better understanding of where there are and are not cases. He said he thinks there has been a representative sample, but this will give the state more granularity.

“We are still not recommending testing for asymptomatic individuals except for a select situations where we’re doing contact investigations in a congregate care setting — those are directed by the Department of Health,” Smith said.

Smith and Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced during the briefing the state has 1,569 cumulative cases of the virus, 83 hospitalizations and 33 deaths.

Hutchinson said the state looks like it’s reaching a plateau for hospitalizations, according to a graph showing the number of hospitalizations from the first cases of COVID-19 in Arkansas to date. However, that does not necessarily suggest a peak.

The governor said April 24 has been referenced as a possible peak date for the state, according to a projection model created by the University of Washington. The updated model from the university now shows a possible May 2 peak date.

Hutchinson said people may think the state is losing ground, but it’s actually gaining ground.

“These are good numbers because our goal has always been to flatten the curve, only if you flatten the curve, it extends out further, but the total number of cases are lower than what they projected originally,” he said.

Hutchinson said this indicates that the state is on the right trajectory with its guidelines and directives.

“This extends the timeline, but the peak will be lower and the rest of the curve will be lower as well in terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” he said.

Smith said there were 1,047 active cases, and of the 83 hospitalizations, there were 18 new admissions as well as 16 discharges, so the net gain is two.

Twenty-six people were on ventilators, 215 health care workers tested positive for the virus, and there are still 28 nursing homes with active investigations to trace COVID-19. Smith said there are 98 positive cases related to nursing homes, plus 88 workers who have been diagnosed and seven deaths.

According to the ADH’s website, there are 52 cases in those 17 and younger, 109 in those 18-24, 507 in those 25-44, 575 in those 45-64 and 325 in those 65 and older.

There are 441 cases in those who are black, 945 in those who are white, four in American Indians, 21 in Asians, five in Pacifica Islanders, five in those who are multiracial, 45 in those who identify as other and 103 in missing.

The state health department also released a directive Wednesday prohibiting the use of non-FDA approved serologic tests for COVID-19 testing.

The directive states these tests developed to be rapid and easy to use for outside laboratory testing. The tests are based on detecting proteins from the COVID-19 virus in respiratory samples or antibodies in blood or “serum generated in response to infection.”

During the briefing, Smith said these tests could help identify those who have been infected with the virus, but wouldn’t be useful to diagnose those with symptoms. He said there are a lot of different tests of variable quality, and doesn’t want people relying on unreliable results.

He said the state may use these tests at a later date, but not at the moment.

Smith said the health department has also been able to collect plasma from those who recovered from COVID-19, and patients that have received the IV transfusion have shown positive results.

Local numbers

According to the ADH, Union County has 18 positive cases of the virus, one more than Tuesday, with 166 negative tests and five recoveries.