Montco commissioner: Without widespread rapid COVID-19 testing, 'we are just flying blind'

KYW Staff
April 28, 2020 - 9:36 am

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Montgomery County officials say testing results at a county jail show just how tricky the coronavirus can be. Out of 740 results, 169 are positive, but none of the inmates are showing symptoms.

Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh is a physician who has helped us understand a lot about this pandemic. She joined KYW Newsradio’s Brandon Brooks live on Tuesday morning. 

Listen to the full interview above, or read a transcript here.

You've called this virus "sneaky." What do these test results tell you about how challenging this virus is?

I think it’s important to remember we’ve only had about three months of experience with this virus in the whole world. And as each week passes, we are all learning more about it.

One of the things that was becoming very clear to me was the likelihood that there were a lot of asymptomatic people walking around who are contributing to spread. That’s why social distancing is so important, and it’s so important to wear masks and be responsible if you sneeze or cough.

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So in our correctional facilities, where we have a total of about 940 inmates, we were getting just a handful of cases. We were getting may one to two every other day. When we got up to about six, I said, you know it’s one of these situations: Where there’s smoke, there might be fire. And we need to find out.

So we undertook, during a 48-hour period last week, Thursday and Friday, to test every single inmate and every single staff person that are in the correctional facility. And we did find — we’re still waiting on about 200 results — but of the first 740 that we got back from the inmates, we found 169 were positive, and we also had some positives among our staff.

So, at least now those individuals are isolated and being cared for.

Doing the math, it looks like that’s about 18% positive, with no symptoms. Do you think that’s representative of what could be happening all around us?

I want to caution a little bit on that math, just because we still have 200 results (that we don’t have back). So if those 200 happen to be mostly negative, that percent positive will go down a little bit. 

What I can tell you is that we’ve had a community-based testing center open for a number of weeks in the county. It was at Temple-Ambler for about a month, and now it’s at the Montgomery County Community College. And that’s a place where anybody in the region can get tested. What we’re seeing at that facility is we’re running about 13% to 15% positive.

Now, we are asking that those people either have symptoms or were told by a doctor that they should be tested or know that they had direct contact with someone who’s positive. So that’s not … a mass-testing sample, but it’s a pretty good sample. So, I’m somewhat reassured that it it at least appears in the correctional facilities that we’re not running too much higher than that.

Is there any plan for the kind of facility-wide testing that was done at the county jail to be done at, say, nursing homes in the county?

The nursing homes have been a particularly challenging situation for us because the nursing homes are not run by the county — none of them in Montgomery County. They are licensed by the state and regulated by the state department of health, not our county department of health. Many of them are owned by for-profit companies. Some are owned by nonprofits. 

So ... we decided on our own to form, kind of, “SWAT teams.” It’s two people, from our health department or our senior services department, that are going in and starting to visit some of the more highly impacted facilities. We are encouraging every one of them to test every single resident and every single staff member. 

We can help to connect them to testing, if they’re interested in doing that. We cannot make them do it, but it our strongest suggestion that they do.

We have had a couple of the facilities that have gone ahead and done it on their own. And, just like we found at our correctional facility, they have found residents that were  positive that had no symptoms, and they have found staff that were positive that had no symptoms. 

So, I just can’t underscore (enough) the importance — particularly in a facility where a lot of people are living together — that everyone needs to be tested. 

Nursing homes in New York are mandated to accept COVID-19 patients released from hospitals, even though they may still be contagious. Is there anything like that in Montgomery County?

There is no mandate for that, that I am aware of. I don’t believe the state has put that mandate into place.

If this were a football game, what quarter do you think we are in?

I am a big football fan — I can’t wait — and hope that the Eagles are able to play this fall! Maybe we are getting close to half-time, would be my best guess. Until we have the ability to do widespread rapid testing, we are like a pilot flying without radar on a moonless night. We are just flying blind.

We need to do widespread testing of our population so we can get people safely back to work, so a business with large numbers of employees that maybe can’t social distance due to the nature of the work, can test everybody who’s coming in the door. We need so much more testing. Until we get that testing, we are flying somewhat blind.

Gov. Tom Wolf will allow golf courses, marinas and private campgrounds to reopen. What do you think of that?

I think that thats okay. I think that we are heading into the phase of this disease where people have to show personal responsibility and they have to take actions in the way that they handle themselves that will protect themselves, their family, and our community. 

So if you want to play golf, great. I know my husband and son can’t wait to get out there and play. But here's the thing: You can't be in a golf cart with anyone else but someone from your household that you already live with and share the same air you breathe for weeks in your house. So if it's two friends that want to play golf, they either need to be walking six feet apart, or they need to be in two separate golf carts. 

I think golf is one of the easiest activities where you can maintain social distance. Even a foursome on the same hole can absolutely maintain distance, but they can’t be in carts together if they aren’t household contacts. Just practical steps like that.

But people need to take personal responsibility on these things — because nobody is going to be out there policing them on the 14th hole — which is a long way from the clubhouse. They have to be personally responsible.

The president put out a plan on Monday to help states ramp up testing. Do you think it does enough? If not, what more should be done?

I have not had a chance to see the details in the president's plans, so I can’t comment specifically on that, but what I will tell you is what I want to see in Montgomery County is the availability of rapid testing. That’s the test where you do a nasal swab, you put the swab into the machine, and within three to four minutes it will tell you if you are positive, and in 10 or 12 minutes it’ll tell you if you are negative. 

That is what we need, so we know right then and there if that person has the virus … and they can go into isolation if they have the virus. Then we can immediately start contact tracing their direct contacts and get them into quarantine. Just basic tried0and-true public health. There’s no rocket science here. 

The piece that we’re missing from that equation is the rapid test. 

The test that we have now, it takes 48-72 hours to get the results back. And so, during that time period, a person who was maybe negative during the day of the test could potentially have contracted the virus during that three or four days. So, the safest thing would be able to have the rapid testing available.

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KYW Newsradio's Michael Carey and Eric Walter contributed to this report.