Health official describes testing strategy

Erin Streiff

PLATTSBURGH — Though testing remains useful for containment of COVID-19, it is not the only measure that accomplishes that end.

"The mask-wearing, the physical distancing, the hand-washing, those continue to be really the primary means of control at this time," Clinton County Health Department Director of Health Care Services Erin Streiff told the Press-Republican.

LIMITED AT START

When the pandemic first hit in March, testing was very limited in Clinton County.

That's primarily because it was being done through Albany's Wadsworth Center lab, which was responsible for running tests for the entire state, Streiff said. 

Additionally, the tests Wadsworth used were being distributed by the state Office of Emergency Management, which would distribute as many tests as it felt were warranted.

The county requested 10,000 kits in March because, at the time, they envisioned the possibility of a drive-through testing site, and that would have just been the start of large-scale testing of county residents on a regular basis.

The thought process was that the more people the county could test, the easier it would be to pinpoint and contain those who tested positive.

"We’ve since learned more about the virus which is that, for one thing, asymptomatic people can carry and spread and that’s a factor that wasn’t really well-understood," Streiff said.

"We were going to target people who did have symptoms. There’s just been so much more information that’s been made available through observing what’s happened the past few months."

STRATEGY CHANGED

The strategy for containment has changed by necessity and, fortunately, has been effective in Clinton County, Streiff said. 

"I hesitate to say that because there are so many factors," she added. "Now that people are traveling again, that could start to look a lot different, unfortunately."

Streiff said the county still utilizes targeted testing, in part because universal testing only measures a point in time.

"If you or I tested negative today, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t then have enough of the virus to transmit tomorrow, it just means the levels today were undetected."

The message that, "Testing is not treatment," pushed early on by Dr. Keith Collins, an infectious disease specialist at University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, remains spot-on, Streiff said.

"There is no treatment and, of course, there is no vaccine. There’s no prevention so the best that we can do in terms of mitigation is containment to the extent that we possibly can."

EMPHASIS ON MASKS

Streiff noted that much of the media's initial focus centered on testing even as public health officials tried to emphasize other methodologies for protecting the community.

"But we also had a situation at the beginning of the pandemic where there was a shortage of the personal protective equipment and the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) had not yet stated that cloth masks were acceptable in terms of the prevention of transmission," she continued.

"Now the emphasis is that, in order to prevent spreading it, if we all wear a mask we’re less likely to spread to others should we be infected and not really be aware."

Streiff added that there is some indication wearing a mask, even one made of cloth, will protect a person from being as likely to contract COVID-19 if they are exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes it.

TARGETED TESTING

As of Thursday afternoon, 11,643 diagnostic tests had been conducted in Clinton County and there were no active cases.

Streiff anticipates that higher level of testing will continue as the state is providing additional tests and more labs are now able to process them.

Though much of the testing taking place has been on nursing home employees — mandated to be tested at least once weekly — and others going back to work, Streiff believes enough of the general population is getting tested.

She said targeted testing of people based on their occupations and whether they are symptomatic or contacts of confirmed cases makes sense.

On social media, residents have questioned whether even the increased testing levels are adequate, since there are 80,000 people in Clinton County.

Streiff pointed out that CVPH is not currently overwhelmed with cases and there have not been additional COVID-19 deaths for a while.

"Those are some indications that the prevalence in the general population must be commensurate with not having very, very sick people. So if there were a lot of people who were infected, more of them would be sick and flooding the hospital and that’s not what we’re seeing right now.

"But that doesn't mean that it can't happen in the future," she cautioned. "That’s why we have to really continue to be vigilant and careful."

'COULD EASILY BE US'

If Streiff had a magic wand, the best-case scenario she would create would be having a vaccine available.

But barring that, she said, people abiding by the current safety measures will make a difference until there is a vaccine or some level of resistance to the coronavirus in the population.

Streiff said she was concerned about potential spikes in cases in the weeks following July 4th weekend, noting that there is always a risk of complacency, which Clinton County Public Health Director John Kanoza has termed "compliance fatigue."

"People are ready to just get back to the way things used to be and we are not at a point where that’s safe to do yet."

Parts of the country currently experiencing COVID-19 spikes — like Texas, Florida and California — "could easily be us," Streiff said. 

"It could happen very quickly, we know that spread happens quickly, so I think we need to just continue to be really rigorous in our infection prevention measures and the mask-wearing and the physical-distancing especially."

Streiff expressed gratitude to everyone in the North Country.

"From my perspective, everyone has really come together and made this work for us as a region and we’re looking at other parts of the state, other parts of the country who have clearly not been doing what everyone here has been working so hard to do and it shows."

Email Cara Chapman:

cchapman@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: @PPR_carachapman

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