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Different doctors make different calls on coronavirus tests

Idaho health officials say people who think they need to be tested for coronavirus should talk to their doctors. But whether someone meets the criteria for the test could depend on which doctor they visit, with some health care centers using strict guidelines and others evaluating each patient on an individual basis.

That has frustrations mounting for Idaho residents, who say time, money and vague instructions are putting too many roadblocks in the way of those seeking tests.

“If somebody is symptomatic and feels like they should be tested, they should talk to their healthcare provider about that,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “People are really, really in tune to this, and everybody is super skeptical with whatever they’re told. A decision about testing for anything really has to come from a health care provider.”

In the first weeks of the outbreak, the state labs were only running tests if the patient’s test was authorized by one of the state’s public health agencies. Those agencies only approved tests for people who met the CDC criteria of having traveled or been in close contact with a person who traveled to a country with known coronavirus spread as well as showing specific symptoms of COVID-19.

The state’s policy changed a few days ago, said Forbing-Orr, and now tests can be run without prior authorization from one of Idaho’s public health entities. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is simply urging physicians to use their best judgment when deciding who to test. The number of tests are limited, and so health care providers are trying to ensure they have enough for the sickest and highest-risk patients.

On Monday morning, about 270 people had been tested for COVID-19 statewide, and only five people were confirmed to have the illness caused by the coronavirus. Of those five patients, four have had only mild illness and may not have met the CDC’s testing criteria.

But several medical facilities are still using the CDC guidelines. In smaller offices, different doctors are taking different approaches.

Erin Malone’s mother, a 73-year-old Meridian woman, has been sick since late February. But Malone’s doctor with St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center told her she wouldn’t be given a COVID-19 test unless she is hospitalized, Erin Malone said, even though her mother has other pre-existing health conditions that put her at greater risk of complications.

“She’s not ill enough to be hospitalized. But I’m quite worried that she can’t get the test, given that she’s high risk,” Malone said.

Mark Snider, a spokesman for St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, said the hospital is following the CDC criteria on whether to administer tests for COVID-19. Those guidelines include if someone recently traveled to a foreign country with widespread coronavirus cases, if they were recently exposed to someone known to have COVID-19, if they are hospitalized with symptoms of COVID-19 or if they are symptomatic and have chronic medical conditions that put them at particularly high risk of poor outcomes.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s powerful budget committee on Monday unanimously approved $1.3 million requested by Idaho Gov. Brad Little intended to shield state workers from the new coronavirus and keep Idaho’s government operating. The money includes $800,000 for equipment and bandwidth so employees can work from home, and $500,000 for sick and administrative leave.

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