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Clark County officials: Coronavirus testing will be key moving forward

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
Allison Berhow of Northwest Staffing, from left, collects a sample COVID-19 test from Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle as Jenny Wilson of Vancouver's Parks and Recreation Department looks on. COVID-19 testing will be a key part of virus surveillance moving forward.
Allison Berhow of Northwest Staffing, from left, collects a sample COVID-19 test from Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle as Jenny Wilson of Vancouver's Parks and Recreation Department looks on. COVID-19 testing will be a key part of virus surveillance moving forward. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With roughly half of all Americans at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, the U.S. is beginning to reap the benefits of its inoculation campaign.

Weekly case rates across the country are as low as they’ve been since the beginning of the pandemic, and COVID-19 deaths are starting to retreat, too.

The outlook isn’t as positive in Clark County yet, as cases remain elevated. Still, more than 50 percent of Clark County adults have received one dose of vaccine, and it’s very possible local case counts will be receding soon. 

On June 30, or possibly before then, Washington will reopen and eliminate capacity restrictions at businesses and gatherings.

While life will be as normal as it has been since March of last year, it’s unlikely that Clark County, or the U.S., will reach herd immunity against novel coronavirus, meaning COVID-19 will continue to infect and kill for the foreseeable future.

One way to mitigate COVID-19’s impact will be through a less exciting technique than vaccination. It has become back-of-mind recently, but virus testing is still one of the most important surveillance tools we have against the virus, Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said.

“We’re not out of this yet,” Melnick said. “This is not a time to be less vigilant about testing. Testing is still a really important component of how we deal with this pandemic.”

Clark County has a history of low vaccine uptake, as the county registered more than 70 cases of measles during an outbreak in early 2019. The fewer people who get vaccinated, the more likely Clark County is to experience pockets of larger outbreaks in the future.

It’s possible that when fall and winter roll around again, the county will see spikes in infections. Having good testing infrastructure in place will be needed to spot cases, stem outbreaks and identify virus variants.

Clark County is seeing thousands of fewer tests per week than it did during the peak of the pandemic in the late winter. Positive test rates have also dropped, although the most recent data from April 25 to May 1 showed the county with an 8.54 percent positive test rate out of 7,257 total tests.

That weekly positive rate is up from 3.67 percent in late March, but down from weekly highs that eclipsed 20 percent.

Erik Vanderlip, chief medical officer with ZoomCare, said that ZoomCare has been seeing a drop-off in COVID-19 tests over the past couple of months, after peaks in the late winter, and he’s concerned that people are less likely to get tested in the coming months, as vaccinations rise and people settle into a sense of comfort.

After all, Clark County’s COVID-19 activity rate of 266.6 new cases per 100,000 population over the last two weeks is higher today than it was on Feb. 8.

“We’re seeing a lot less volume than we did during the holiday peak,” Vanderlip said.

Moving forward, Vanderlip predicts COVID-19 testing will be similar to getting tested for the flu during flu season. People will still need to be tested if they are presenting as potentially sick with the virus to stop workplace outbreaks, or other forms of transmission.

“People still need to understand if they have the flu or not,” Vanderlip said. “I think that’s the way COVID testing is going to go. There’s going to be a ongoing need.”

Jon Wilson, an administrative laboratory director with Vancouver Clinic, said Vancouver Clinic has been conducting 1,800 to 2,000 tests per week, down from about 4,000 in January.

Wilson said Vancouver Clinic’s positive test rate has also dropped from about 13 percent to 5 percent more recently.

He predicts the local, and likely national future, will be a summer with low COVID-19 rates, followed by a winter that isn’t as bad as last year, but is still quite hindered by the virus.

Wilson said Vancouver Clinic thinks that during the winter it might have 75 percent of the testing volume it had last year.

“Just because it is trending in the right direction doesn’t mean it is going to stay that way,” Wilson said. “We do fully expect that the rates will decrease in the summer, but in the winter we expect them to go up. We’ll be ready for that future demand.”

Columbian staff writer

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