Local lab offering Covid-19 testing for employers

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Northwest Laboratory, the lab running a drive-through Covid-19 testing site in Bellingham, began offering Covid-19 testing for employers on May 14. Any employers can contact the lab and request testing for its employees. Testing must be ordered through telemedicine, and test results should come back in 24 hours.

State and local health officials say widespread testing is critical to reduce the spread of infections while more businesses open and social distancing restrictions are lifted. Testing availability is one of many factors that governor Jay Inslee will use to determine when the state can move on to the next phase in his four-phase re-opening plan, he said. 

In a press release about the availability of testing for employers, the Port of Bellingham called the ability for employers to get their employees tested a key for businesses to re-open. 

“As the economy begins to re-open, protecting the health of our community is everyone’s top priority” said Don Goldberg, director of the Port’s Regional Economic Partnership, in the press release. “Building a strong and sustainable economy is absolutely dependent on our business community taking proactive steps to prevent a spike in Covid infections, including making testing widely available and accessible to all.”

Northwest Laboratory medical director Kelly Lloyd said the lab had heard from many employers who wanted testing. The lab was already testing people in the Alaska fishing industry before they went north for the season, and it wanted to open up testing for local employers, Lloyd said.

Lloyd said she expects Northwest Laboratory has enough testing capacity to meet the demand. Currently, there are no state or federal guidelines regarding which employers to prioritize or how often employers could request testing.

So far, tests have been paid for either by employers or the employees’ health insurance, Lloyd said. 

Though Inslee has said that testing kits are in short supply statewide, Lloyd said Northwest Labs anticipated that testing supplies could become scarce and started sourcing them early on.

Northwest Laboratory’s drive-through testing site now collects a less intrusive nasal specimen rather than the nasopharyngeal specimen previously collected, which required swabs to be pushed much farther into the nostril.

Though testing is available here, Whatcom County has struggled to use its testing capacity. Since the beginning of May, county health department officials have said that supplies exist in Whatcom County to test about 2,400 people a week, but only 429 test samples were collected in the first seven days of the month, according to data from the Washington State Department of Health. 

It’s too early to tell from state data if Covid-19 testing in Whatcom County has increased since Northwest Laboratory opened its drive-through site to employer testing. A phone call and email to Lloyd on May 18 was not returned by press time.  

The number of negative test results reported in the Whatcom County Health Department’s daily online updates surged in the week after Northwest Laboratory opened testing to employers, but health department officials said the surge was at least partly caused by a delay in reporting from the state. 

“From my understanding, we know that [the Washington State Department of Health] had a significant backlog in our negative tests,” said Amy Hockenberry, health information and assessment supervisor at the county health department, during a May 18 press briefing. “My understanding is that some of that has to do with that backlog showing up finally in our numbers.”

If more negative test results are coming in, another factor could be a change in procedure at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. Bev Mayhew, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center’s director of communications and marketing, said anyone coming in for surgery or an inpatient procedure at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham must first be tested for Covid-19, and that that’s been the case for “at least a couple of weeks.”

The rate of tests coming back positive in Whatcom County is currently 7.2 percent, according to the state Department of Health. That’s the lowest it’s been since early April. 

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