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Health care workers are still having a hard time getting coronavirus tests. And as NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, the lack of testing means there could be lots of asymptomatic health care workers caring for pretty sick people.
LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: In a recent roundtable with Joe Biden, Mary Turner, a nurse in Minnesota, told the president-elect something he found surprising.
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MARY TURNER: Do you know that I have not been tested yet, and I have been on the frontlines in the ICU since February?
JOE BIDEN: You're kidding me.
WAMSLEY: Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control say that health care personnel should be tested if they're symptomatic or have a known exposure to the coronavirus. But treating COVID-19 patients while wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE, doesn't count as exposure that warrants testing. A recent survey by National Nurses United, the nation's largest nurses union, found that only 42% of registered nurses in hospitals said they had ever been tested for COVID-19.
MICHAEL MINA: It continues to amaze me that we are not doing this.
WAMSLEY: Michael Mina is an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health who says while PPE generally offers good protection, there have been outbreaks at hospitals. At Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where Mina runs the virology lab, one outbreak involved 42 employees and 15 patients. The hospital blamed patients not wearing masks, staff without eye protection and employees failing to social distance while eating.
MINA: Now, that is an outbreak that shouldn't have happened. I believe pretty firmly that we would not have seen an outbreak grow so quickly and it wouldn't have even been able to get started if we were doing frequent testing. There are so many ways that a hospital could be doing this, and they're not.
WAMSLEY: Mina says hospitals could either use rapid antigen tests or pool PCR tests to do screening for the virus more cheaply.
MINA: They could have everyone swab and put 50 swabs at a time into one tube and run that one tube and pool the test for very, very cheap. You could do a whole hospital department with one test for 50 bucks a day.
WAMSLEY: California State Health Department announced new guidance two weeks ago that strongly recommends weekly testing of health care personnel. But hospitals have struggled just to get enough tests for patients. Susan Butler-Wu is associate professor of clinical pathology at USC, and she directs the clinical microbiology lab at a large hospital in Los Angeles.
SUSAN BUTLER-WU: So if we were to take something like this recommendation where - OK, let's say we screen everybody weekly. There's very few clinical hospital labs that would be able to have that much testing available to be able to do that.
WAMSLEY: Butler-Wu says at her hospital, there are 10,000 workers that would likely need testing under the new guidance. And she says without operational support from the state, the new protocols are going to cause problems, including greater testing backlogs.
BUTLER-WU: But as a country, because we don't have a national plan or a national strategy, these are - this is the situation we find ourselves. Football players can get tests. People choosing to socialize and wanting to feel, you know, safer doing so, even though it's a pandemic, can get tests.
WAMSLEY: But a program to test the country's health care workers - nope. Many nurses and doctors suspect hospitals are worried that widespread testing could reveal asymptomatic cases and then result in quarantining critically needed staff. And for Mina the Harvard epidemiologist, the lack of regular testing of health care workers raises other questions.
MINA: There's a clear problem when we're saying that the greatest-risk people, the people who are at the greatest risk to themselves and to their patients, are the health care workers. And so that's why we're going to give them vaccines before anyone else. But then when we don't have a vaccine and it's just testing, we say, don't worry about it. It's not a big deal. You don't need to be tested.
WAMSLEY: It's an approach, he says, that doesn't make sense. Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.
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