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Coronavirus testing in Cayuga County: How it works and why everyone won't be tested
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CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus testing in Cayuga County: How it works and why everyone won't be tested

You have the symptoms of the coronavirus — a cough, fever, shortness of breath or a sore throat. The only way of confirming whether you've contracted the virus is a test. 

In Cayuga County, there is a process to determine whether you will be tested for COVID-19. 

Kathleen Cuddy, public health director of the Cayuga County Health Department, explained the testing plan in an extended interview with The Citizen. The information provided by Cuddy sheds light on the procedures in place to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and why the local testing numbers lag behind at least two neighboring counties. 

The assessment 

Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is asked to call their health care provider. If they don't have a primary care physician, they could consult with a community health center such as East Hill Family Medical in Auburn or a local urgent care center. 

When the symptomatic person contacts one of these offices, they will be asked questions and an appointment will be scheduled. A medical professional will complete a patient respiratory assessment form. The purpose of filling out the form is to collect demographic information about the patient, document their symptoms and determine if they are immunocompromised or have chronic health conditions. 

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People with underlying medical conditions or have compromised immune systems are at a higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. 

If the medical professional decides that testing is warranted, the form will include their explanation. 

The document is sent to the Cayuga County Health Department. The department will contact the patient to schedule an appointment for them to be tested. 

"The first reason we did this assessment was to make sure that somebody with some other serious health issue did not come to be tested when they really should have been assessed for pneumonia," Cuddy said. "We don't have the ability to do that assessment (for pneumonia). That's the health care provider. We're just doing the swabbing only." 

When a health department nurse conducts the coronavirus test, the sample is collected and shipped to Labcorp. It could take up to a week to learn the result. 

While the health department is one option, there are other testing sites in the region. People who are seriously ill and go to the hospital emergency room can be tested for COVID-19. There are also drive-through testing centers in Onondaga and Tompkins counties. Any Cayuga County residents who go to those locations will have their results reported to the Cayuga County Health Department. 

The equipment

There is another reason for the assessment form: The lack of personal protective equipment and testing swabs. 

With nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment — gloves, gowns and masks — and testing kits, the county had to prioritize who is at greatest risk if they have the virus. The health department announced last week that critically ill patients, health care workers and first responders would be tested first. 

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"The physicians have really been great at referring people who are at greater risk because, as one of our doctors said, we have people we see who very likely could have this virus, but they don't meet the high-risk criteria," Cuddy said. "The treatment is not going to be any different for them if they know or if they don't know."

She continued, "We recommend that they go home, that they stay home, they treat their symptoms. If they get worse, call us back. Or if they get very severe (symptoms), of course, for anybody they should go to the hospital." 

As of Monday, 265 Cayuga County residents have been tested for the coronavirus. That pales in comparison to the 3,215 people who have been tested in Onondaga County and 1,427 tests in Tompkins County. 

It's true that both counties have larger populations than Cayuga. But both have been doing far more testing per capita. Onondaga and Tompkins counties also have drive-through testing locations that are open to the public. Cayuga County doesn't have such a site. 

Cuddy projected that there would be more confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cayuga County "if we had an unlimited supply of everything," including testing kits. 

"If the physicians could send every possible patient to us we would see much higher numbers," she added. "But they are being very judicious in assessing their patient and sending us those who are the highest priority and have the greatest risk factors." 

COVID-19 in Cayuga County

There are four confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Cayuga County, according to the latest situational update provided by the health department. 

So far, 230 of 234 people have tested negative for the virus. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. 

Cuddy acknowledged that it's "quite likely" there would be more confirmed cases if the people who had mild symptoms of the virus were tested. 

"I am speculating that is the case," she said. "But it is not without reason given what we know in the areas throughout our state, throughout our community and our surrounding communities there are positive cases." 

Even though the numbers are low at the moment, Cuddy wants the public to take the pandemic seriously. There is a stay-at-home order in New York and mass gatherings are prohibited. Schools are closed. Non-essential businesses were ordered to keep workers at home. 

"The virus is present in our community and consequently, we don't want people to become complacent with their social distancing efforts," she said. 

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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