Testing Delays Complicate Virus Response As Spread Continues, Health Department Director Says

Aug 4, 2020

Tulsa County continues to see "widespread virus" in the community, as delays in testing contribute to difficulties in properly responding to the pandemic, according the Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart.

At a press conference Tuesday at Tulsa Police Department headquarters, Dart said that testing laboratories are "swamped," leading to numbers from the Oklahoma State Department of Health that may be less useful due to being dated.

"Definitely the backlog in testing has impacted those numbers," Dart said. "We're still trying to figure out, as we get results going forward, are those results within that, hopefully, five-to-seven-day timeframe? Or is it even further? If it's even further, we know the results are somewhat dated, which impacts our ability to do contact tracing, and impacts our ability to mitigate spread."

That spread continues to be "wide," Dart said. He said that of 3,850 testing specimens collected at THD testing sites and an additional 642 specimens collected in "high-risk settings" in July, 19.59% came back positive, a figure he called "extremely high."

"Almost 20% is much higher than what we would like, but it's very important that we do that testing so we understand the incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 in our county," Dart said, pointing out that the figure is only reflective of THD testing sites, not of those administered privately or by the state.

In a phone interview following the press conference, Dr. Jennifer Clark, a physician of palliative medicine and professor at the University of Tulsa Institute for Health Care Delivery Sciences, said that the THD sample is still significant.

"It's a pretty good sample," Clark said. "That's a pretty good chunk of testing."

Clark explained that the World Health Organization sets a benchmark of 10% percent-positive, above which communities are likely not performing adequate testing.

"Around 3% (percent-positive rate), you're in a suppression-type mode," Clark said. "As you get to 10%, you're in mitigation mode, meaning you have broad spectrum disease process and you need to cast your net more in order to figure out what the problem is, and where are the problems, and where is the spread, and how can you mitigate it?"

"A 20% positivity rate suggests that our net, our casting area, is really pretty deep full of fish, and we can't get our net around it fast enough," Clark said.

Dart reiterated his recommendation that local school districts considering returning to in-person learning for the fall semester change their plans to an all-virtual model for now, given the data showing that gatherings are dangerous. He said that about 11% of July infections were in children, and that people under the age of 35 made up over half of all cases in Tulsa County last month.