Santa Clara County health officials have listed wide-spread testing for Covid-19 as an indicator to whether it’s safe to start opening back up. But a global shortage of reagents is holding back efforts to ramp up diagnosis.
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith broke the news at a recent Health and Hospital Subcommittee that the public health department has the capacity to analyze about 340 tests a day. About a month ago, the capacity was at no more than 100.
In the coming weeks, Smith said county health officials want to increase testing capacity to 1,300 a day. But they’ve hit a road block getting there.
“We’re having problems with getting reagent,” Smith explained. “We’re hopeful that within the next two to three weeks we’ll get sufficient reagent.”
Reagents are the chemicals used to extract the RNA that’s necessary to identify a virus. But a widespread shortage of the key testing ingredient for Covid-19 has made it more difficult to implement wide-spread testing in cities across the world.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to boost the number of Covid-19 tests conducted in the state to 60,000 to 80,000 per day.
California is contracting with OptumServe to set up 86 testing sites in underserved communities. But even with the help of the state and private labs, Smith noted the testing capacity would be around 4,000 a day. At that rate it would take more than a year to test the nearly 2 million residents in Santa Clara County.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who chairs the two-person hospital subcommittee, said that the compliance of the public relies on county officials’ ability to pave the way to reopening, with wide spread testing being a large part of that.
“I think it’s pretty clear at this point that if we wait for somebody who ‘has control’ to show up at our doorstep to start offering tests in some great number, we could be waiting awhile,” he said. “Two months later, we're still in much the same place.”
Prior to the April 29 subcommittee meeting, the Cities Association of Santa Clara County sent a letter to the supervisors, Smith and Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, asking the county to ramp up its testing efforts. The letter was signed by the mayors of all 15 cities in the county, as well as Palo Alto Councilwoman Liz Kniss. The 16 local elected officials urged the county to form a testing task force and identify goals and other needs to conduct more testing. “Without dramatic scaling of testing from the current levels of approximately 600 tests per day to several thousand tests per day, we cannot reopen our county,” the elected officials wrote.
During the meeting, a few residents, along with Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, asked about the county’s efforts to test the unhoused population. A San Jose Inside report last week revealed that as of April 24, just 137 of the approximately 10,000 homeless people who live in the county had been tested for Covid-19.
“People are living in the streets, they can’t really shelter in place because they have no shelter, they have no place,” homeless advocate Robert Aguirre said. “But we can mark off areas where they are located and warn other people not to enter into that encampment because there's a possibility that they may become infected themselves.”
Smith said that ultimately the county would like to test more of its unhoused residents.
“It’s a challenging endeavor because it’s an uncomfortable test in a population that'’ very reluctant to take care,” he remarked. “But that being said, it is something that we have a team working on trying to develop new techniques, new strategies to get them tested.”