PANDEMIC: In-home virus tests on the way

County will make do-it-yourself kits available next week in push to curb spread over holidays

By Ian Wheeler and Alicia Robinson | Staff writers

Orange County leaders announced a new initiative Tuesday to hand out do-it-yourself kits to test saliva for the coronavirus in a push to curb the spread at inevitable holiday gatherings.

Starting next week, the county, in partnership with Aliso Viejo based testing lab Ambry Genetics, will make 11,000 spit testing kits available for Orange County residents to use at home. Officials say the kits are just as accurate as the ubiquitous nasal swab tests.

Orange County’s political and public health leaders have said they are moving fast to get ahead of rapid coronavirus spread and the possibility of dark winter months ahead.

With the worsening pandemic, residents should do everything they can to avoid mixing outside their household bubble. But if you have, say, Thanksgiving dinner, limit it to three households at most, including the host, said Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County Health Care Agency director and county health officer.

County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Andrew Do holds one of the 11,000 coronavirus saliva test kits that will be available next week at clinics in Anaheim and Santa Ana.  MARK RIGHTMIRE STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

And you might grab one of the coronavirus saliva tests to know whether you’re infected before and after the festivities, officials said.

Chau said he hoped the first batch of tests would be requested by the disproportionately affected residents of Anaheim and Santa Ana. The kits will be initially made available in clinics located in those cities.

“We will be rolling out this home test countywide as more kits are available, likely by early 2021,” Chau said.

He said that from tracking the data, activity at restaurants, stores and schools can’t be directly faulted for rising case rates. Instead, Orange County’s current surge in cases is being driven by widespread public and private social gatherings, Chau said, an issue he expects to worsen as temperatures drop and outdoor events move inside.

“Many of us do celebrate the holidays in the wintertime, so hopefully folks are more mindful of the guidance not to gather in private,” he said. This new testing campaign is distinct from the county’s current swab testing programs, which have been largely reserved for people with COVID-19 symptoms — cough, fever, shortness of breath — and essential workers.

Using the self-testing kits, residents will mail their samples to a lab using a prepaid shipping label, and results will be ready within 24 hours, officials said.

“Orange County is the first county in the nation to provide the saliva COVID- 19 PCR test to residents,” Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Andrew Do said during a press conference Tuesday. “Now, COVID-19 testing is widely available across the county for anyone with COVID concerns at no cost.” “By making testing accessible and convenient, we would like you to work that into your holiday practices,” Do said.

He advised residents still planning holiday gatherings to test themselves two to three days before and after, which is generally seen as the number of days it takes for COVID-19 symptoms to set in. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned Monday when talking to reporters that testing shouldn’t give a “false sense of security.”

“Where testing doesn’t work is if you do what so many young people are trying to do: is on a Thursday they go and get tested so on Saturday if they are negative, they can all gather and not worry,” Ferrer said. “That’s actually a false sense of security. The test result was for Thursday. It says nothing about whether you are still negative on Saturday.”

Orange County’s Chau said: “I don’t disagree with Barbara. However, seeing our own county’s available testing capacity, the Orange County Board of Supervisors is offering an innovative approach similar to Hawaii,” which lets visitors in with a negative test result within 72 hours of a test.

“Again, this is an extra step to ensure COVID-19 positive and asymptomatic people know their status before gathering during the holidays,” he said.

The initial stock of at-home saliva tests will grow to 500,000 by the end of December, Do said, and more could be ordered if needed. Paid for by federal emergency coronavirus relief funds, the tests will soon be made available countywide.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom pulled California’s pandemic “emergency brake,” placing the vast majority of the state’s population, Orange County included, under the government’s strictest lockdown rules after new cases doubled statewide over 10 days.

Newsom also said Monday he was considering a statewide curfew but was still studying how other

states and countries have handled them. Los Angeles County was preparing Tuesday afternoon to announce nighttime curfews on restaurants, bars, wineries and card rooms, plus capacity limits on private indoor and outdoor gatherings.

In response to the tighter restrictions, which include requiring restaurants to close their dining rooms again, Orange County Supervisors Don Wagner and Do on Tuesday also announced a plan to put $1 million toward a program to help restaurants quickly prepare outside dining areas for winter.

The program, also paid for with federal aid funds, would provide restaurants $1,000 each to buy heat lamps, lighting, tents or canopies and other accouterments for dining outside with earlier sunsets and colder evenings.

For Lucy Dunn, president and chief executive of the Orange County Business Council, she said she sees the return to purple level restrictions as punishing largely compliant businesses and their employees when it’s Orange County residents throwing parties who are driving coronavirus tallies higher.

“It’s just a major economic hit for folks trying to put food on the table, and especially the small business community that has been struggling,” Dunn said. “There’s no question that we’re going to lose businesses, especially small ones.”

Amid the tumult of new lockdowns just ahead of a crucial holiday shopping season, local stores and restaurants should adapt as they have done throughout the pandemic, Dunn said. And they should hold their customers accountable: Don’t let them in without a face mask, she said.

“I know it’s gonna get colder. I know the heat lamps are gonna be coming out,” she said. “But we also know malls are staying open, albeit at reduced capacity, allowing folks to be able to get out and shop, especially with the holidays coming up.”

Dunn advised retailers to make Black Friday last longer than one day to minimize crowds. Shoppers, too, can support their local stores by calling them for orders, shopping directly on their websites and arranging for pickup.

For not just Orange County’s economic health, but the entire country’s, Dunn said businesses have to double down on health protocols to keep showing government officials that they can keep spread in their establishments to a minimum.

And to help preserve the local businesses they patronize every day from prolonged lockdown orders, Orange County residents should heed calls to get tested, particularly because it is known now how easily even carriers without symptoms can spread the virus, Dunn said. All should be done to hold out through the finish line: a widely available vaccine.

“Just like every business is interconnected, the strategy is interconnected too. We need everyone to step up and do their part,” she said. “I canceled my Thanksgiving myself. We have a duty to be each other’s keepers, especially our families.”

Dr. Clayton Chau, county Health Care Agency director, speaks at a news conference Tuesday at the county Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.  MARK RIGHTMIRE — STAFF

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