A healthcare worker works at the Senneca Diagnostics COVID-19 testing facility in Twin Lakes
A healthcare worker works at the Senneca Diagnostics COVID-19 testing facility in Twin Lakes in Santa Cruz County on Dec. 22, 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Time for a Delta ‘strategy shift’: What a testing backlog, tricky variant mean for Santa Cruzans

A testing backlog, combined with the fact the Delta variant can move quickly through infected people, means that results may have little use. As a result, county health officials urge residents to isolate at the first sign of illness, wear a mask and get vaccinated.

With the Delta variant spiking, COVID testing in Santa Cruz County is in high demand. Yet, county health officials say that this has caused a bit of a backlog — and because the Delta variant has such a short incubation period, testing may have little use.

Based on California Department of Public Health data released Monday, most Californians are still receiving their results fairly quickly. During the week of Aug. 8, 75% of patients received their test results in 24 hours, with 93% receiving their results in 48 hours.

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Deputy Health Officer David Ghilarducci said despite this, testing is not the best mode of defense.

“The Delta variant is really challenging our existing paradigm — generally, you have a chance to do contract tracing and avoid further spread from there,” he said. “But with Delta’s incubation period being so much shorter, it could peak and shed even before we’re aware of the case.”

Motorists line up to take COVID-19 tests at at Long Beach City College-Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Motorists line up to take COVID-19 tests at Long Beach City College. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

According to county spokesperson Jason Hoppin, the backlog isn’t necessarily a cause for concern — in fact, it may show more Santa Cruzans taking the recent surge of Delta cases seriously, and being as precautious as possible.

“Whenever a bunch of people are getting tested, the labs that are the backbone of the testing get delayed,” he said, noting results could come in three to five days in place of 24 hours. “We’re just back to where we were — it’s a feature of the surge.”

As noted by county health in recent reports, the Delta variant is much more infectious and can spread more easily from person-to-person contact, often with no known source of exposure. Based on county findings, 78.49% of current COVID cases have been likely due to person-to-person contact.

The other issue, Ghilarducci said, is that many people are choosing to do at-home testing without sharing results with the county. This makes contract tracing even less effective than before, and, he said, creates a different pandemic.

“Human nature tends to be in denial, especially if they have mild symptoms,” he said. “The real risk here is that people may just ignore their symptoms.”

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
San Bernardino County Public Health Department nurse Marijorie Tabago collects a nasal sample Wednesday from Mercedes Madrano at the Ontario Convention Center. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Ghilarducci doesn’t believe that the testing backlog will return to what the state experienced last winter, with up to 10 days of wait time for results. Yet, the main challenge now is that Delta moves so quickly.

“Even if you were to get tested right away with a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours, it’s almost too late,” he said. “We’re really seeing a strategy shift, and relying instead on people to self-isolate.”

For people who are concerned about their symptoms — including sneezing, sore throat, or congestion — Ghilarducci encourages them to treat themselves as though they have COVID, and to self-isolate until they receive a test result. He also highly encourages masking, aligning with the recent county mask mandate.

Further, the best way to protect yourself from serious illness or death is to get vaccinated.

“Contact your health care provider and make an appointment,” he said. “We’re probably going to see another rush for vaccines coming up.”