Fewer San Mateo County residents are getting tested each week as COVID-19 cases stabilize here, but county leaders say stopping in for a test now is as important as ever.
State data shows San Mateo County is averaging more than 800 tests per 100,000 people per day, which is higher than the state average of under 500 tests per 100,000 people per day. But that’s down about a quarter from peaks in December and January, when COVID cases were spiking locally.
It’s to be expected that fewer people are seeking out COVID-19 tests now that nearly 70 percent of county residents are vaccinated, said Peter Shih, senior manager for delivery system planning at the county. But widespread COVID-19 testing is still important for several reasons.
First, people still need to know whether they’re infected with COVID-19 to protect themselves and others, Shih said. There are an average of around 40 new cases still being reported per day in the county, and an additional 44 “breakthrough” cases in total reported among fully vaccinated people in the county.
Plus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California Department of Public Health guidance remains unchanged, even for vaccinated people. They say to get tested if you’re expressing symptoms or think you might have been exposed to a COVID-positive person. Shih said that any way residents can get tested, through free county-run sites in their community or with new at-home tests starting to appear on shelves, is good.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re creating as much access as possible, because (testing) is a critical tool,” Shih said. “You could still be an asymptomatic carrier even when vaccinated.”
Shih said testing is also key to the county’s ability to understand how the virus is spreading and if variants are moving through the community.
That’s why the county has begun contracting with vendors that offer genomic sequencing of positive tests, which detect the specific type or variant of COVID-19 an infected person has. While Shih said patients themselves won’t be told if they have a variant or which one, the county will be able to see the data in aggregate.
“(County Health Officer) Dr. (Scott) Morrow appreciates surveillance and knowing where potential hotspots could be,” Shih said. “Things like that that help us understand the disease’s progression.”
The Half Moon Bay site switched to new vendor Fulgent Genetics this week. It is now offering a variant-detecting nasal swab test. It was the first neighborhood site in the county to do so, Deputy City Manager Matthew Chidester said. The walk-through site remains free and open to anyone of any age, regardless of residency, immigration status or health insurance coverage, from 3 to 6 p.m. every Monday.
Shih and county Health Chief Louise Rogers said there are still too many people who remain unvaccinated to stop regular testing. And without vaccines approved for those under 16, testing is going to remain a key tool to monitor the disease, especially as students go back to school or resume participation in sports.
“Until we reach the 90 percent goal that we have and until the science more fully explains the duration of the vaccines’ efficacy as well as the potential for transmission by people who are vaccinated and asymptomatic, we believe testing remains really important,” Rogers said.
Finally, testing is still a factor in the state’s calculation that dictates just which businesses can reopen and how fully. While Gov. Gavin Newsom has plans to get rid of the color-coded, tiered system by mid-June, in the state’s current reopening framework, the more testing performed, the more possible local reopening.
Shih guesses the county’s testing hasn’t seen as severe of a drop-off for a few reasons. First, there are groups like local sports teams or schools that require regular testing. Some employers, too, are either requiring or encouraging their employees to get tested often. Then there are the people who keep coming back for their own personal peace of mind.
“That’s wonderful,” Shih said. “Those three groups are keeping our testing robust.”