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National shortage causes limitation in who can test as supply runs low, JCPH busy as ever

Since the rapid uptick in COVID cases that began at the beginning of the year, Jefferson County Public Health has been overloaded with testing requests.

PMG PHOTO KIVA HANSON - Jefferson County Public Health COVID Test Testing COVID-19

"There's times when I put the phone down and it's ringing before my hand even leaves the receiver," said Jessica Mendoza, who has worked at JCPH since before the pandemic.

The week of Jan. 24 to 29, they have averaged about 50 tests a day, a slowdown from the previous week.

Since the Omicron variant entered the scene in Oregon, cases have skyrocketed, jumping from 125 cases Dec. 27 to Jan. 2 to 639 the week of Jan. 17 to 23. The week of Jan. 24 to 30 the COVID cases in Jefferson County were down at 604.

During the surge, Jefferson County Public Health was inundated with testing requests. They have since opened to all day testing, but previously JCPH has been testing from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

"It's kind of a beehive around here," said Tami Kepa'a, who serves several roles at Jefferson County Public Health. "We have been getting so busy we're all hands on deck."

At 3 p.m. like clockwork the phones began ringing off the hook. For the next 20 minutes, the phones did not remain silent for more than two or three minutes.

"It can get really hectic, calling people and running out to the cars," said Trent Titus. "I'm glad people are getting tested though."

When someone goes to get a test from Jefferson County Public Health, they first call to be screened and set a time, then when they arrive, they call, and a staff member comes outside to give a test swab. After the test processes inside for at least 15 minutes, JCPH reads it for a positive or negative. Positives are expedited to contact tracers, who call the patient and begin the process of collecting and notifying their close contacts.

While the test must process for at least 15 minutes, its often clear someone has a positive almost immediately. "The vibrancy of the tests line depends on the viral load, so if someone has a high viral load, and is at the peak of the virus, the test can register immediately," said Dr. Michael Baker, director of Jefferson County Public Health. PMG PHOTO KIVA HANSON - Jennifer Leslie went to public health to get a test after having mild 
symptoms and potential second hand exposure.

The testing team, often consisting of an all hands on deck crew including staff from a variety of departments, keeps a tally of the tests for the day on a large whiteboard in the community room. Each time a new test result comes in, a tally is added to the board. Staff members are often lined up around the room testing cases to keep up with the demand. PMG PHOTO KIVA HANSON - Jefferson County Public Health has all hands on deck for testing, often pulling from all departments

The omicron variants surge has led to some more restrictions on testing. With a nationwide testing shortage, JCPH has begun to limit who they test. "It's incredibly painful to not be able to test everyone like we have in the past," said Baker. "Hopefully we get more tests soon, and we can go back to testing everyone that wants a test."

As of Jan. 27, JCPH has 69 boxes of tests, about a 22-day supply given the current rates of testing. JCPH is hoping that more tests come soon, and that the omicron surge begins to fade.

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