KUALA LUMPUR, March 5 — Anyone in America who wants a coronavirus test can get one if a doctor agrees, federal health officials announced, even as experts fear clinics and hospitals will be overwhelmed by these requests.
According to new criteria for Covid-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States’ (US) leading national public health institute, patients with fevers, coughs, or difficulty breathing now qualify for diagnostic testing.
It also stipulates that health care workers who had close contact with a known novel coronavirus patient within 14 days of developing symptoms, as well as anyone who traveled recently to affected areas, can be candidates for testing.
“Clinicians should use their judgment to determine if a patient has signs and symptoms compatible with Covid-19 and whether the patient should be tested,” part of the new criteria states.
“Clinicians are strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza.”
However, with flu season in full swing, tens of millions of Americans will have respiratory symptoms, so doctors will have no way to truly discern who should be tested for the coronavirus, which has killed 11 people so far in the US and affected 157 people.
The CDC’s new criteria also essentially relegate the decision to test to individual physicians with little experience and scant scientific evidence about coronavirus, according to The New York Times (NYT).
“We are already overwhelmed with calls day and night,” Dr Julie Vaishampayan, a public health officer of Stanislaus County in Modesto, California, told NYT.
Dr Julie said public health laboratories in California — where one person has died due to Covid-19 — are already working seven days a week to contain the outbreak. Doctors cannot perform the tests themselves and must refer patients to state or local laboratories.
“You need some sort of framework within which to work,” Dr William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told NYT.
“Not every patient who walks into the doctor’s office with a cough needs to be tested.”
US Vice-President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that “all laboratories at the state level can conduct coronavirus tests without any additional assets or resources from the federal government.”
Some 2,500 testing kits “are going out this week,” capable of testing 1.5 million patients, he added, but NYT said a surge in coronavirus testing by people who have no real need may divert resources from those whose diagnosis is unknown.
“When the diagnosis is uncertain, it is difficult to know how to use limited protective gear appropriately or whether to isolate the patient,” the NYT report stated.