Drive-up COVID-19 testing

Clinic staff members seal a swab into a vial at a drive-up COVID-19 testing site that opened in April outside San Joaquin General Hospital.

California is refining its approach to COVID-19 testing to make sure people who are most at risk can be tested quickly and affordably in the face of rising demand and delays.

Far more people are being tested now than months or even weeks ago. The state is now averaging more than 100,000 tests a day, up from 2,000 early in the pandemic. Of 1,539,100 tests reported in the past 14 days, 7.2% were positive, amounting to 111,495 new cases statewide in two weeks.

The state’s new strategy, announced Tuesday, has three parts:

• First, prioritize tests for those at greatest risk.

• Second, urge health plans to pay providers to perform more tests themselves instead of referring people to state testing sites and labs.

• And third, put new leaders in charge of the task force that directs testing statewide.

“Our testing capacity has increased exponentially in recent months,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California health and human services secretary, in a statement. “At the same time, new national supply chain challenges and large volumes of specimens sent to commercial laboratories have resulted in growing delays in processing times. Consequently, it is critical we continue to be deliberate and creative about testing.

“We must do this so that testing is readily available and affordable to those who need it, especially those communities experiencing the worst impacts of COVID-19 and those who are at the highest risk.”

Hospital patients with symptoms of COVID-19 have the highest priority for testing under the new guidelines, along with people who have been in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients. Tests used by health departments to investigate and manage outbreaks are also at the top of the list.

Health care workers and people who live and work in nursing homes, homeless shelters and prisons, or who are in the hospital for other reasons, are in the second of four priority tiers. So is anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms.

The third tier includes those who work in critical sectors and are often in close contact with other people, including educators and workers in food service, agriculture, retail, public transportation and similar fields.

People who have no symptoms and no other risk factors might need to wait to get tested until turnaround times for results are two days or less statewide.

To take pressure off state-run testing sites and labs, the state wants health plans to pay for tests performed in doctor’s offices.

New emergency regulations will designate COVID-19 testing as “medically necessary urgent care” for health workers and people with symptoms or possible exposure to the virus.

The state task force that’s in charge of administering and processing tests also has new leaders as of this week. Their mission will be to oversee a statewide network of testing sites and supplies and to try to keep costs down.

The new co-chairs are Dr. Gilbert Chavez, the retired founding chief of the California Department of Public Health’s Center for Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Bechara Choucair, who focuses on social health as senior vice president and chief health officer of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc.

The California Coronavirus Testing Task Force, a public-private partnership, was created by the governor in April.

Contact the Tracy Press at tpnews@tracypress.com or 835-3030.

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