As Confirmed COVID-19 Cases Rise, Santa Clara Co. Has Yet to Disclose Testing Capacity

The fever came first, then the aches.

Frank Ponciano—a 27-year-old ex-San Jose policy aide and community organizer—says it was March 8 when he got a bug of some kind. Over the next few days, his temperature rose, giving him chills. His head throbbed with a dull, steady pulse and it felt like mucous congested his lungs. Every cough stung his painfully sore throat.

By then, the global death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 3,500. Major events were getting canceled. After days of rest, drinking lots of water and avoiding a trip to the doctor for lack of insurance, it occurred to him that he should probably get tested.

Maybe what plagued him was the same wildly contagious respiratory disease that the whole world was talking about.

On March 12, he decided to call the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. Ponciano says it wasn’t really clear which phone number to use, so he reached out through the main administrative line.

When he finally reached an operator, she told him to try Valley Medical Center (VMC) instead. The VMC receptionist who picked up his call told Ponciano there were no tests available, but that he could come in for an assessment as long as he signed forms agreeing to pay all the charges incurred. With news reports circulating at the time putting the cost of testing at anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 or more, he says he had little choice but to decline the offer. And so, the receptionist wished him well.

“That was the end of that,” Ponciano recounts.

As someone who’s otherwise healthy, athletic and pretty well adapted to various flu strains his schoolteacher wife brings home, he felt lucky that his body withstood whatever it was that sickened him. But he felt uneasy about being a potential carrier for a virus that’s fatal to potentially 3 percent or more of the people who get it.

Like an untold number of people in Santa Clara County who have fallen ill but couldn’t get tested, Ponciano may never know what sickened him.

At least he had the good sense to self-quarantine.

Running Blind

“Testing, testing, testing” has been the mantra repeated by World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Widespread diagnostic assays, contact tracing and targeted isolation of the infected and the people they may have exposed have been cited as key reasons that South Korea has been able to “flatten the curve” of its outbreak while the U.S. has been running blind.

Earlier this month, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield promised that all Americans, insured or otherwise, can now get free coronavirus testing.

But there’s another hurdle that persists to this day: a dearth of actual tests.

As San Jose Inside reported last week, Santa Clara County says it has been ramping up testing with drive-through clinics. But those are by appointment-only and still require a doctor’s referral. And the challenge now is getting any data from not just the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, but the county Public Health Department, which has repeatedly ignored requests from reporters for the latest statistics.

In a March 19 phone call with the county Emergency Operations Center, after days of unanswered emails, a spokesman said he would try to find out how many testing kits were available, how many samples each kit could test and how many samples were required for an accurate read for each patient. He said he would have some information by the following day—and if he didn’t, he would have an explanation for why not.

Friday passed with no update. Then the weekend. On Monday, we’ll try our luck again.

While the number of total tests conducted in Santa Clara County remains unknown, we know the results. On Sunday, the county Public Health Department reported that the number of positive COVID-19 cases rose to 302—a 114 percent jump from Saturday and a 154 percent leap from the day before that. Ten people have died in this county, the ninth a woman in her 60s and the 10th a woman in her 40s.

For as long as the county withholds data about how much testing it’s conducted, the public will have no idea about what mortality rate that represents or where many of those who tested positive were exposed to the virus in the first place.

It’s easier to understand why the CDC, under the Trump administration’s purview, has stayed mum. In the first several weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump openly advocated against testing to keep the numbers down for fear of how they would affect the public’s perception of him.

But it’s harder to understand why Santa Clara County would opt to keep us in the dark.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

14 Comments

  1. Trump, its always Trump’s fault.

    Thats why is great to have Pelosi making deals and showing leadership.

  2. > President Trump openly advocated against testing to keep the numbers down for fear of how they would affect the public’s perception of him.

    You’re able to read President Trump’s mind, Jennifer?

    If you think this is the reason Trump advocated against testing, it sounds like you didn’t examine many alternative possibilities.

    But, life is easier and the world seems simpler if you need only one explanation for everything.

  3. To Frank Ponciano:

    Wishing you the best! It has been a while since you were on the staff for CM Don Roacha. I remember you well coming into the monthly meetings of the Neighborhood Commission with your pony tail, armed with the updates from your office for review by the commissioners.

    I know how frustrating it is to know of a loved one which has all the symptoms including shortness of breath only to be told that there is no testing available for you. Unfortunately nothing has changed in that regard these past (14) days since your attempt at testing. This is true all over Northern California, even though we are at ground zero, we still lack the test kits. In as far as SCCPHD you may look no further than this January 31st, 2020 post I made on Nextdoor to a County PHD Announcement. The response by the Public Health Department’s Public Relations employee was not to alarm but to assure no danger to the public. If we could only have back the time wasted so far.
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/thmbgkyn0kz55ic/IMG_2585.PNG?dl=0

    Since then I created a Nextdoor Citywide Group open to anyone in San Jose. It is called “San Jose 2019-nCoV Virus (COVID-19)”. It has grown in membership to over 1,060 members at last count. It is chock full of information and ideas from the best medical writers in the business.

    Unfortunately we tend call out our City and County officials for their lack of foresight and subsequently I have had my Nextdoor account removed as punishment. Hopefully the Group remains.

    Frank, we will get passed this. Take care and say hi to Tom Skinner for me. I know you guys chat it up in Tweeterville a lot.

  4. The story references Mr. Ponciano’s school teacher wife. Presumably they have health insurance and eligible for affordable health insurance if not. While empathetic to his plight, the story seems more about poor decision making and / or poor journalism.

    Are there sufficient test kits? No. We’re in a similar state as virtually any new disease and limited to those that meet triage criteria. Better, faster, and cheaper tests will become available.

    A presumably healthy 27 year old is at a much lower risk of dying or requiring hospitalization than someone 50 years older. That’s the essence of triage -attend to those most in need and likely to benefit from treatment. The piece also begs the question: why call VMC instead of seeking assessment and treatment by Mr. Ponciano’s physician or a walk-in clinic?

    Then there’s the matter of badgering OES for data. It would seem SJI’s whinny data demands exacerbate the problem, rather than contribute to any improvement.

    Instead, why not examine OES’s website and effectiveness criteria? Last updated April 2019. And the relevance of the County’s [untested] emergency plan. Hint: despite the 9-11 Commission’s findings, we *still* lack a seamless communication vehicle to orchestrate various public safety entities. Read the public response to the plan.

    And where is County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith in all of this? Other than an administrative hiring binge, what is being done to identify and correct the litany of issues that COVAD-19 has raised?

    All things considered, the piece seems irresponsible.

  5. People, media, everyone else, this is not the time to be playing politics and pointing with the finger. This is an emergency situation. Jennifer there was no need to bring Trump to the topic of this piece. This only created distraction from the important point you are bringing. The point here is to demand clear data and free testing for all that for any reason are not insured. Italy is paying a high price for playing politics at the beginning of the COVID-19. This is a time to work together to stop the spread. Federal, State, and local government have for once practice honesty and integrity on data collection, reporting, testing and treatment, and not keeping people in the dark! We need to have a clear picture of where we are standing so we can protect ourselves and others.

  6. No surprise. Supervisors just cut $60million from the hospital in middle of a outbreak. The whole place is collapsing. Management talk tough but it all a facade.

  7. Jennifer said:

    > It’s easier to understand why the CDC, under the Trump administration’s purview, has stayed mum. In the first several weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump openly advocated against testing to keep the numbers down for fear of how they would affect the public’s perception of him.

    This is looking even more dubious.

    KSFO/KGO talkers Armstrong & Getty referred to a WSJ article which reportedly claims that the CDC bureaucrats in charge of testing kits “misrepresented” the capacity and ability of the CDC to supply test kits. (In other words, the bureaucrats “lied” to the Trump administration.)

    Trump’s statements and policies were presumably based on information provided to him by the CDC.

    We don’t know for sure what Trump knew or why he “openly advocated against testing”. Maybe he wasn’t trying “to keep the numbers down”. Maybe he suspected he was getting crap information from the bureaucrats and wasn’t going to make any promises based on information he couldn’t trust.

  8. Our country’s bureaucrats lied to President Trump about an up coming crises, to what point? Well we all know a tragedy or crises or a good lie is a terrible thing to waste, “Rom Emanuel” AKA “the creepie ballerina”.

    This policy has been in practice for the last four years, anything that can be done must be done to force Trump out of office, even if we have to kill lots of people and destroy the economy and the country. Next interfere by placing “poison pills” in legislation that’s was meant to help people. Nancy Pelosi AKA the ‘Wicked Witch of the West” just wasted a week trying to add the green new deal, Obama care, and a political fungus designed to put a political correctness bug in every corporate board room and phone in the country.

    HOW DEAR YOU MIZ PELOSI ! Your killing people, Americans!

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