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At the Peak Vista Community Health Center testing drive-thru on North Academy Boulevard, staff are collecting samples from 700 residents per week.

Amidst a rise in COVID-19 cases in El Paso County, some residents are seeking out testing unnecessarily. 

Several employers have been asking healthy staff to get tested for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, before coming back to work, an unnecessary measure if they do not have symptoms, said Dr. Robin Johnson, medical director of El Paso County Public Health. People without symptoms should not be tested unless they are working with high-risk individuals, such as nursing home residents, or they are about to have a medical procedure, she said.

"A negative test only means that the person is unlikely to have been infectious on the day the test was drawn. A negative test does not tell us anything about the individual’s risk of becoming infectious later," Johnson said.

Some of the increase in demand for testing has also been driven by patients experiencing symptoms. The county has seen the 14-day average number of new COVID-19 cases rise since mid-June from about 13 to about 60, El Paso County Public Health data shows. At the same time, the percentage of patients testing positive has risen to about 7%; the state's goal for the county is 5%.

"Even though it’s difficult to accept for some of us, it doesn’t make it any less real," Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy medical director for El Paso County Public Health, said in a presentation to the El Paso County Commissioners Tuesday.

By The Numbers | Coronavirus in Colorado

UCHealth is providing record numbers of COVID-19 tests across the state, said Dan Weaver, a UCHealth spokesman. So far this month, the health system has provided an average of about 1,500 tests per day, compared to just over 1,000 in June and 760 per day in May. In Colorado Springs, UCHealth been providing about 380 COVID-19 tests per day on average this month, compared to about 230 per day in June, he said. 

UCHealth processes it's own tests and results are available in 72 hours for those who do not need hospital care, Weaver said. 

Peak Vista Community Health Centers has seen a steady rise in demand. The centers' staff are now collecting samples from about 700 people a week, said Barbara Gibbons, executive office administrator. Most of the uptick in demand at the Peak Vista testing drive-thru site has been for residents with symptoms and residents seeking testing there should expect to wait a bit, especially around lunch time, she said. 

"It can be lengthy at times, but nothing excessive," she said. 

Turnaround times for test results have also been on the rise because of the regional surge in COVID-19 cases in states such as Texas and Arizona, which has led to backlogs at large private labs, such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, that also serve Colorado, according to a statement for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

El Paso County sees coronavirus hospitalizations rise, health officials call on residents to mask up

The state's lab has also seen more demand for testing and has an average turnaround time of about four days. The lab has added a third shift to analyze samples overnight, to bring turnaround times as close to 48-hours as possible. Turnaround times at private labs vary greatly, the statement said. 

Peak Vista contracts with Quest to processes tests and saw a slight increase in turnaround times last week, but it is now getting results back in 48 hours, Gibbons said.

It is key test results are received between 24 to 48 hours so that health officials can contact those who might have been exposed and advise them to quarantine or isolate so the disease does not continue to spread, Johnson said. Individuals can spread the disease before showing symptoms or never having symptoms.  

The county public health department asked the state to help with contact tracing on July 10, while hiring new contact tracers to serve the county, Johnson said. 

The state investigators have been doing their best, but they are not as familiar with the community and so it's harder to understand the areas a person may have visited while infectious, she said. New contact tracers will start on July 22. Six have already been trained and 17 more will complete training early next week, she said. 

Health officials encourage those with symptoms to seek testing. Residents who have had contact with someone who has tested positive should stay at home and away from others for 14 days. 

Employers can screen employees for symptoms when they arrive at work, require masks and social distancing, clean frequently and provide sick leave, Johnson said. 

Peak Vista's test site is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday at 3205 N. Academy Blvd.

UCHealth test site is open  from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays at 175 S. Union Blvd. Patients should bring ID and insurance information

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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