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By Eli Wolfe

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With COVID-19 infections skyrocketing in Santa Clara County, officials want to make it easier for residents to get tested for the virus.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to have staff drum up ideas for how to expand the acquisition and distribution of at-home COVID-19 tests for the county’s nearly two million residents.

With approximately 3,836 new daily reported infections in Santa Clara County according to the latest seven-day average, Supervisor Joe Simitian is emphasizing the need for a dramatically scaled up distribution network. He said the county should consider unorthodox distributors, such as local political advocacy organizations or parent teacher associations.

This might inadvertently feed a “black market” for tests, but Simitian said he’s more concerned with the county slowing down distribution by overly regulating the process.

“If there are some abuses along the way, we may just have to accept that as the cost of moving a lot of tests out in a large place rather quickly,” Simitian said.

Santa Clara County, which tests approximately 25,000 people per day, already provides self-tests to residents and continues to source supplies. The state recently supplied the county’s public health department with more than 90,000 self-tests, according to Simitian’s memo. The county is seeking more tests from an unnamed supplier, but County Executive Jeff Smith said this supplier is also supposed to provide the federal government with 500 million tests. It’s unclear how many will be made available locally.

“We’re going to try to maximize our purchases as much as we can,” Smith said, adding the county is developing a prioritization process to make sure tests go to the right people and aren’t funneled into a black market.

Growing urgency

The threat of the omicron variant has added a sense of growing urgency to the county’s mission to acquire more tests, which are in high demand among consumers but in scarce supply in the region. Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody told the board the explosion of cases is “breathtaking” and couldn’t say for certain when it will peak.

As of Jan. 1, the hospitalization rate for unvaccinated individuals in the county is 37.9 per 100,000 residents and 1.7 per 100,000 for the vaccinated. Deaths are still relatively low, but Cody warned an uptick in mild cases could still overburden the region’s health care system.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez echoed the need for greater testing and added she wants to see the county reinvest in some of its more effective tactics for getting tests to residents, such as partnering with schools and sending volunteers directly into the community.

“I am concerned that we have reduced the number of people we have doing door-to-door work,” Chavez said, asking staff to report back on the number of people still doing door-knocking for testing.

Chavez also noted the county is seeing alarming staff attrition among public health care workers due to COVID-19. She said the county’s community clinics recently reported missing approximately 25% of staff. Later, Chavez said she learned the county is experiencing a shortage of ambulances due to illness among drivers.

Several county lawmakers applauded Simitian’s recommendation to provide in-home COVID-19 tests to residents.

“The availability of testing has become extremely limited as our county has observed a surge in COVID-19 cases,” said Tina Walia, mayor of Saratoga. “Providing additional in-home tests to residents will help address demand and provide our community with the tools to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Monte Sereno Councilmember Liz Lawler said the county’s actions will reduce stress and anxiety among residents by putting personal health choices back in their hands.

“Time is of the essence—we have the kits now, let’s get them to the public, we shouldn’t wait for the federal government to come through on delivery,” she said.

There is added pressure because many residents are struggling to find at-home test kits or sites around the county where they can get tested quickly.

“Omicron has hit our county really hard,” said Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein. “Finding testing availability is not that easy for residents.”

The new emphasis on testing follows the county’s various efforts to get its workforce vaccinated and boosted. Santa Clara County recently required certain frontline workers to get a booster shot by Jan. 24.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.

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