Earl Warren Showgrounds testing site COVID
Some COVID-19 test results from the three local state-run sites, including this one at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara, are taking up to eight days, so the Public Health Department wants to reduce demand. Officials now ask people to only request an appointment if they have symptoms or exposure to a person who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Encouraging widespread COVID-19 testing “backfired” because laboratories could not keep up with the increased demand, causing long waits for test results, according to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. 

State-run community testing sites – in Santa Maria, Buellton and Santa Barbara – opened in mid-May, and promised results in a day or two.

Public Health officials encouraged people to get tested even if they didn’t have symptoms, to get a better idea of the novel coronavirus’ spread in the community.

However, the current 2-week-long wait times for testing appointments — and results that can take another week — have made them reverse course, asking people only to request a test if they have symptoms or exposure to someone with the novel coronavirus.

“The big increase in testing and also people adopting it and wanting a test backfired in a way I didn’t anticipate, and the state didn’t anticipate, that it would cause such a backlog in testing,” said Dr. Henning Ansorg, Santa Barbara County’s public health officer.

“So it ended up we have a lot of test results we only get after eight days or later, and that defeats the purpose completely,” he said. “You want the test results as fast as possible, so you can tell them they’re positive and isolate them so it doesn’t spread.”

It’s problematic because people without symptoms are unlikely to stay home and isolate for a week while they wait for results – so testing non-sick people becomes “sort of useless” – and it slows down results for people who really need the test because they’ve been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, Ansorg told Noozhawk on Monday.

“There is a change in messaging, and it’s out of necessity,” he said. “It’s not what I would like to happen, but we just have to make that change to be able to make testing meaningful.”

Testing, contact tracing and isolating only works if test results come back quickly, he added.

California has been increasing its daily testing capacity, past 80,000 per day now, and the commercial labs being used (including Quest and LabCorp) are overloaded and have serious backlogs, Ansorg said.

Even though the three local facilities can each test 130 people daily, and are open five days a week, there were delays getting test results from the start, which public health officials have called unacceptable on multiple occasions.

“It’s not fair to promise something and you can’t deliver,” Ansorg said Monday. “I’m just hoping that these big labs do their part and ramp up their capacity.”  

There are faster turnaround times at hospitals, doctor’s offices, urgent care centers and county clinics, so much so that Ansorg is telling anyone with COVID-19 symptoms or known exposure to a positive person to get tested there, not at one of the community testing sites. 

County Reports 171 New Cases on Monday

As of Monday, the county reported 69 confirmed COVID-19 patients in local hospitals, including 21 people in intensive care units.

age chart for Monday cases

The county reported 171 new positive cases on Monday and 75 percent of them were in people under the age of 50.  (Santa Barbara County Public Health Department photo)

Most of the 171 new cases reported Monday were in Santa Maria (97) and Santa Barbara (22), and 75 percent of them were in people under the age of 50.

Santa Barbara County has reported 3,655 cumulative cases and last week, public health officials closed indoor restaurants, bars and other businesses due to the increasing number of cases.

The state testing standard to meet reopening metrics is 675 tests a day for a county Santa Barbara’s size, which has been met for the past three weeks.

Santa Barbara County has reported an average of 626 daily tests for the week ending June 7; 418 daily tests for the week ending June 14; 1,139 daily tests for the week ending June 21; 895 daily tests for the week ending June 28; and 1,347 daily tests for the week ending July 5, even with a 0 reported on June 30 (as the county updated its data reporting system).

Even with increased testing, the county’s test positivity rate is going up – meaning a larger percentage of people tested are found to have the disease.

“It’s not just because we’re testing more that we see more positives,” Ansorg said. “Maybe a little, but there are also more people falling ill to the degree that they need hospitalization.” 

Over the last month, the hospitalization rate and intensive care unit rate have doubled, he added.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Test positivity rate chart

The seven-day rolling average for test positivity is increasing, meaning more people who are tested for the novel coronavirus are getting positive results.  (Santa Barbara County Public Health Department photo)