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Fix test result lag now

It is appalling that the Essex Center in Elizabethtown had to wait 19 days to get the results of its weekly, state-mandated COVID-19 tests for all staff. That delay opened a gigantic hole in the nursing home’s defenses for the coronavirus to run right through.

And it did. Five people are dead so far because of it, and dozens of other people are sick. You can read more about it in our story in Friday’s Enterprise by reporter Elizabeth Izzo, under the headline “Deadly delay.”

We have all known from the beginning of this pandemic that testing was a big part of our defense against it. This particular virus is very contagious, and people can carry it for up to two weeks without showing any symptoms. Therefore, taking people’s temperature and checking for symptoms is not enough. Testing is the only way public health officials can know who has it and isolate them so they don’t keep spreading it — for instance, by going in to work at a nursing home for 19 days. Testing is not 100% accurate, but it’s the best defense we have.

The Essex Center outbreak is a great example of why President Trump and others are dead wrong when they call for less testing rather than more. Trump’s reasoning for this was that when we test more, numbers of positive cases go up. Well, yeah — but these people are spreading the disease with or without tests. Knowing who they are helps save lives — but only if we know in time to stop them from spreading it.

Not 19 days later.

Back in March and April, we knew our testing capacity here in northern New York was tiny and our test turnaround time far too long to be effective, but we have since ramped up testing. We now have enough test kits, and for the most part, anyone who wants a test can get one. But more than six months in, we were still waiting nearly three weeks for test results for the front-line staff working with our most vulnerable people.

Again, these are tests New York state mandates, but doesn’t apparently ensure are processed in a timely manner. Nursing homes should be the first place our society protects from this virus; they are where it is most deadly. We all know that. The Enterprise has editorialized about it more than once.

Yet labs are still overwhelmed. Of all the money the federal and state governments are spending to keep people safe from this virus, how much goes to increasing lab capacity for COVID-19 testing? Look at all the other precautions we are taking — and yet we’ve left giant holes in the defenses of nursing homes, of all places.

Whoever has to power to fix this problem must do so — now.

We have reason to believe higher-level government can fix it because now, with help from the state Department of Health, the Essex Center is able to turn around test results in one to three days — still too long, but much better. But that change didn’t happen until after people started dying. What about other local elder homes’ wait times?

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