State health officials behind their own timeline on a COVID-19 surveillance plan as testing still lags

Updated: Mar. 27, 2020 at 7:03 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) -North Carolina health officials are behind their own previously-announced timeline to implement a new method of tracking the number of cases of the Coronavirus across the state.

On Monday, Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, said the state was going to move from relying purely on testing people to a surveillance model.

“As we move into this next phase of work, we will start to do tracking of the virus very much in the way that we track the flu every season,” Cohen said. “It is not about positive lab tests. Instead, our epidemiologist will create a new surveillance system going forward.”

The model, Cohen explained, would allow health officials to track the virus even as the state adopted CDC guidelines encouraging younger, healthier people who have Coronavirus symptoms to stay home to recover without a test.

That guidance, Cohen has said, is aimed at limiting exposure for the virus and conserving testing supplies, which are running low.

Previous: Supply shortage prompts NC to limit coronavirus testing

On Wednesday, a NCDHHS spokeswoman said the state epidemiologist would brief reporters on the new model by the end of the week.

But at a press conference on Friday morning, Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said the county ha not received any guidance from the state on implementing surveillance monitoring.

“To date, we haven’t gotten that guidance. We know that they are working on that and trying to figure out what the best possible techniques would be,” Harris said. “That is a particular issue that we would like to see a statewide approach as opposed to a Mecklenburg county approach if at all possible.”

With testing limited due to low supplies and long turn-around times to process the samples that have been collected, health officials lack a reliable way to track the virus’ spread without surveillance monitoring.

At Friday morning’s press conference, Harris said she suspected at least half of the 259 COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg County to have been transmitted through community spread.

But at a press conference late Friday afternoon, Cohen was unable to answer when the state would implement its surveillance monitoring for the virus.

“We are working on making sure that we’re getting a complete picture of this virus. It’s important as we move forward,” Cohen said.

“As I said earlier, we don’t have the luxury of time to wait for complete data,” she continued, before going on to reiterate praise for Governor Roy Cooper’s handling of the pandemic.

But hours after the press conference, NCDHHS announced a briefing with the state epidemiologist that would take place on Monday morning.

The announcement about the briefing did not include any details on what the state was currently doing to implement surveillance monitoring.

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