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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

By Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Rachel Bluth


SOLANO COUNTY—Just weeks into the federal government’s efforts to contain the novel coronavirus, a new California case has exposed weaknesses in the testing procedures that could be masking more widespread reach of the disease.

A woman in Solano County, California, who hadn’t traveled abroad or had contact with another known patient with the illness was diagnosed with the virus Wednesday, raising concerns that cases are going undetected because of the federal government’s narrow testing protocols.

The patient sought care at a local hospital before being transferred to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento because of the severity of her case, according to a letter hospital officials sent to members of the campus community. Suspecting coronavirus, doctors at UC Davis asked public health officials about testing for COVID-19, the name given to the illness believed to have originated in Wuhan, China.

But the request did not meet protocols laid out by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The woman didn’t have a history of travel or contact with a person with a known infection. So no test was administered. The patient continued to receive treatment at UC Davis for four more days, without a diagnosis. Finally, on Sunday, the CDC requested the test, according to the letter.

It came back positive.

Multiple experts interviewed said the case underscores the need for more widespread community testing of the new coronavirus, which has sickened tens of thousands of people in more than 45 nations around the globe. It also highlights how the CDC’s narrow testing protocols, combined with the agency’s continued delays in getting functional coronavirus test kits to state and local public health agencies, have hindered the public health system’s ability to respond to the outbreak.

To date, the CDC has tested fewer than 500 people in the U.S. for the virus. By contrast, South Korea, which is several days into an outbreak, had tested more than 66,000 people and confirmed more than 1,700 cases as of last Thursday.