Testing Without COVID-19 Symptoms a Matter of Supplies

Apr 24, 2020

State health officials say up to a quarter of people who test positive for COVID-19 will show NO symptoms. Some organizations are doing widespread testing to prevent those people from spreading the virus. But the state Department of Health will only test people with symptoms. 

The difference comes down to a matter of supplies.

New cases of COVID-19 continue to show up in the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities. That, despite restrictions on visitors for more than a month to protect residents from the coronavirus. Many facilities screen employees for fever and other symptoms as they come to work. 

But cases are still appearing. Now administrators say the virus is likely brought into facilities through employees who have no idea they are carriers.   

Randy Bury is president of the Good Samaritan Society, now part of the Sanford family. Sanford has a private lab that can process COVID-19 tests. 

Bury says some residents in the Sioux Falls Village location developed symptoms for COVID-19 and later tested positive. Company leaders then decided to test all residents and employees at the facility—an option many don’t have. 

“But we did it because we could and it was a benefit of being part of Sanford," he says. "And that’s when we saw a significant number of these residents were asymptomatic. I mean, no one knew, including themselves, that they would test positive for this virus.”

Bury says widespread testing in the facility helped remove uncertainty. They identified positive staff members as well as residents. Residents with coronavirus moved to a separate wing of the facility with dedicated staff to mitigate further spread.

State epidemiologist Josh Clayton says there are some limited benefits from testing people without symptoms in a defined risk area, like a nursing home. He says research shows 20 to 25% of COVID-19 cases are people without symptoms.

“It’s not unknown that that is the case, but the idea of testing all individuals in the state kind of as a large cohort is not really an effective strategy," he explains.

He says the state’s focus is to ensure people with COVID-19 symptoms have access to tests when they need them.