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Lab workers process coronavirus test samples at UW Medicine’s virology lab. (UW Medicine Photo)

The University of Washington School of Medicine says its virology lab is now capable of performing 1,000 genetic tests for the COVID-19 coronavirus every day — but all that capacity hasn’t yet fully come into play.

“We’ve performed a little more than 400 tests to date over this week,” Alex Greninger, assistant director of UW Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratories, explained in an email.  “We have much more capacity to perform tests than we are currently receiving.  We perform tests on the specimens we are sent.  Our current capacity in just over a thousand tests per day, and we are building out to perform 4,000 to 5,000 per day.”

Based on a survey of public health officials conducted by The Atlantic, the maximum throughput on just one day could surpass the number of tests that have been conducted nationwide over the course of the past two months. The Atlantic reported that its tally came to 1,895 people tested for the coronavirus in the United States, about 10 percent of whom have tested positive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t released its own numbers on how many have been tested so far. Testing efforts had been hampered in the early stages of the U.S. outbreak because of problems with CDC test kits.

Those problems led the Food and Drug Administration to give the go-ahead for selected labs to come up with their own tests. UW Medicine began using its RNA-based test on patient samples on Tuesday.

In a tweet, UW Medicine’s virology lab reported that there’s “a consistent positivity rate of 5-7% among specimens submitted to the lab.” That translates to 20 to 28 positive results since the lab started processing tests. (One person may be the subject of multiple tests, so it’s not necessarily valid to assume there are 20 to 28 new cases.)

Some people who have experienced at least some of the symptoms associated with COVID-19 say they’ve encountered problems when they’ve sought to be tested. That suggests there may be bottlenecks in the procedures that precede testing.

As the virus spreads, public health officials are wary about overstressing medical facilities. Seattle-King County Public Health says sick people do not need to be tested unless they’ve been in contact with someone who’s known to have the COVID-19 virus, or are themselves in a high-risk category — for example, older than 60 or suffering from underlying health conditions.

Sick people who don’t fit those risk categories are being advised to stay home, except to get medical care. People seeking medical care may find themselves in a Catch-22, however: One patient described such a situation after hearing that UW Medicine had extra capacity for coronavirus testing.

“That’s not where the bottleneck is,” said the patient, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his employment status.

The patient said he tried to schedule a test or an appointment because he was running a fever, but was told the sampling procedure couldn’t be done at the clinic. “The only place that can actually do the testing is the emergency room — that’s what I was told,” he said.

But he was also told not to go to the ER unless he was experiencing respiratory distress. Instead, he was given a prescription for flu treatment. Fortunately, the patient said he’s feeling better as of today.

That’s just one story, of course. We have also heard about a teenage patient who experienced a fever, went in for a coronavirus test and got the all-clear within just a few hours. We’ve reached out to a couple of Seattle-area health care networks for their perspective, and will update this report with anything we hear.

Seattle is by no means the only place where access to coronavirus testing has been an issue. During Thursday’s quick visit to Washington state, Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that “we still have a ways to go” when it comes to providing enough test kits to meet the anticipated demand. But he promised that enough kits to run more than a million tests would be distributed by the end of next week.

Does that mean UW Medicine’s testing operation will become unnecessary? Absolutely not, Greninger said.

“Nothing obviates the need for any test. Other laboratories will be able to offer testing based on the FDA’s guidance and availability of testing kits. It does take time to determine assay performance and validate the test, and then take care of the logistical issues to receive all the specimens and result them out,” Greninger said.

“The U.S. is in a better place than it was last week,” he said, “but we need to catch up to this virus.”

Patients cannot refer themselves for testing with UW Medicine’s lab procedure — the test is available only through physicians and healthcare providers. UW Medicine cautions that all results are considered presumptive, and should not be the sole basis for decisions on managing a patient’s condition.

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