Don’t test patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms, health department tells doctors

Long Beach health officials are urging doctors to be judicious in whom they screen for COVID-19, advising them to conserve sparse tests even when a patient is showing symptoms of the new coronavirus disease.

In an alert sent to local healthcare providers Sunday, the Long Beach Health Department recommended against testing patients with only mild respiratory symptoms. Instead, doctors should tell the person to manage the disease at home.

“This will minimize possible exposures to healthcare workers, patients, and the public and will reduce the demand for personal protective equipment,” the health department said.

Health officials recommended running a test only when a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 “will change clinical management or inform public health response.”

The advice is similar to that issued by Los Angeles County officials Thursday. Long Beach issued its own advice because the city has a separate health department from the county, a rarity for most nearby cities.

Long Beach has already acknowledged there’s a shortage of tests and other equipment, which has been a problem nationwide.

“We don’t have enough tests. That’s just the facts,” Mayor Robert Garcia said on Friday. He said the city is waiting on those supplies from the federal government.

But Sunday’s alert was the most concrete example yet of how that shortage was playing out, with officials essentially conceding they can’t get a complete count of how many people have been infected through testing.

On Sunday, Long Beach reported it hadn’t confirmed any new cases of COVID-19 even as Los Angeles County reported 71 new cases. It’s not clear how many tests have been administered in Long Beach. Private labs are required to report only when a test is positive, and the city has stopped publicly stating how many tests its own lab has run.

Even before Sunday, health officials have been triaging who should get tested to glean the most valuable information they can from the limited number of screenings.

In the alert, health officials said doctors shouldn’t test people without symptoms of COVID-19 even if they know they’ve been exposed.

Like everyone else in the state of California, they should be told to stay home and away from other people to avoid spreading the disease that officials fear will overrun the health care system if the spread can’t be blunted.

“Everyone should be acting and responding as if everyone around them was infected,” Garcia said Friday.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram.