Sonoma County patients left in limbo as testing problems hamper response to coronavirus outbreak
Santa Rosa resident Kelly Cramer had been sick for three weeks, hospitalized for half that time and already was back at home for three days, in an empty house, before she learned the result of her COVID-19 test.
It was negative, but it hardly mattered at that point.
She'd been kept apart from her three teenage kids for two weeks and had been held in isolation at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital while everyone awaited her test results. She checked herself out at the end of 10 days when waiting was all that was left to do.
The hospital staff had used scarce protective gear every time they entered her room, and though they were gracious and kind in every way, it was clear they were frustrated as well over the lengthy wait, she said.
But Cramer, 42, who wasn't even approved for testing until she developed pancreatitis on top of the worst respiratory illness of her life, said the emotional toll of confinement and separation from her children in the midst of a terrifying global pandemic was as severe as the physical discomfort she endured. Thirteen days had elapsed when she got the report on her results.
“Not knowing that I possibly had it and could have infected my children - that weighs heavily on a mother's heart,” she said.
Cramer is among thousands of Californians, including many in Sonoma County, who have been trapped in the same waiting game amid what's already a brutally uncertain time in the age of the new coronavirus.
The nationwide problems with testing, including a shortage of kits, delays in results and concerns about accuracy, have hampered health officials' ability to more precisely gauge the shape of the outbreak and order more targeted interventions.
At a Saturday news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to increase the number of tests conducted in the state “by fivefold” and said far too few Californians have been tested for the virus.
As of Saturday, more than 126,700 people had been tested for COVID-19 across the state, a volume of testing the governor said “may sound high to some, it is low to many others, and certainly to me.”
“The testing space has been a challenging one for us, and I own that, I have a responsibility as governor to do more testing in California,” Newsom said.
Newsom said Californians would soon be able to have blood-based tests with quick turnaround of between 5 and 15 minutes. He also said the University of California campuses at Davis and San Diego are helping the state develop high-output testing hubs.
A better, quicker and more reliable testing regimen, also would help return those who prove not to have the disease to their families and to work - a key step to help keep households and essential services up and running during a prolonged pandemic.
Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County's health officer, said closing the testing time lag would help to better track the outbreak locally and hone in on clusters of cases that could halt the virus' spread.
“I really would like to see a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours, which is what we would expect, and what our public health lab and Kaiser are able to do,” Mase said.
The county lab and Kaiser Permanente each handle about a third of the testing in Sonoma County, with Quest Diagnostics, the large commercial lab that ran Cramer's test, picking up the other third, a county spokeswoman said. Sutter Health also is sending some high-priority specimens to its Sutter Shared Laboratory, while St. Joseph Health facilities send some tests to Providence Oregon Regional Laboratory, representatives said.
Sonoma County reported 107 positive COVID-19 cases by Saturday night and one death. The county lab has conducted about 2,200 tests, but since it only receives positive tests from the other labs, it's not clear how many COVID-19 tests overall have been run for Sonoma County residents.
The return time is also highly variable, with the fastest time occurring at Kaiser's in-house lab, which has a turnaround time of about 12 hours, a spokesman said. The public health lab usually reports results within about 24 hours.
Many patients in Sonoma County and elsewhere, however, have waited a week, 10 days, even 13, like Cramer, to hear back from Quest
Across the state, results remained unknown Friday for nearly two-thirds of the patient specimens collected for testing since the outbreak began at the end of January. While more than 35,000 results had been reported to the California Department of Public Health as of Friday, 59,500 were still pending, the agency reported. On Saturday, that number of pending tests had dropped to 13,000, a sharp reduction that could not immediately be explained.