test kit Photo courtesy the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

State and county health officials have expressed drastically different views on the importance of testing for a viral outbreak considered to be a worldwide pandemic.

While state and national leaders have declared the spread of the coronavirus a public health emergency, local health officials have expressed frustration that the state is able to provide testing for less than one percent of the population.

The Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) has not received additional coronavirus test kits since it began testing with the first shipment of 300 kits received on March 2. There have been 143 individuals tested in the two weeks since, but additional testing for faulty tests and controlled results leaves the state with less than 100 kits left. 

DHS director Cara Christ, however, says the agency expects more kits to come in any day, and told 3TV that the state has a sufficient amount for its needs. When Copper Courier reached out to DHS for clarification, the state department declined to comment further. 

The state’s dismissive response to testing expansion has left county health officials frustrated.

Dr. Bob England, director of the Pima County Health Department, said that without widespread testing, the situation looks more drastic than what the reality may be.

“In places that haven’t had enough test kits available, this looks horribly scary. In places where there are more tests available, like South Korea, the fatality rate looks like it has dropped to less than one percent,” England said. “When you’ve got enough test kits, you can find more cases of mild illness. The real fatality rate is going to be significantly less, but we don’t know how much less, and that is hugely important.”

Mortality rates for the coronavirus vary drastically by country, and testing availability appears to play a major role. In South Korea, where more than 200,000 tests have been performed, the mortality rate is at .8%. In the U.S. where roughly 10,000 tests have been performed, 2.3% of confirmed cases have ended in death. 

The difference, England says, is in the criteria for who can be tested. In Arizona, only someone who has traveled to an affected area, has been hospitalized, and has tested negative for the flu is eligible to be tested for the coronavirus. Very few people qualify for testing based on these requirements, but England said that only testing severe cases isn’t enough.

“We know the coronavirus is here, that’s clear. We don’t know yet whether we’re having sustained community spread. And we can’t know that because there aren’t enough test kits available to do any kind of testing,” England explained. “It’s frustrating to public health because we need that information in order to make better decisions about what we need to do to limit spread.”

It is unclear why so few testing kits are available. Copper Courier reached out to Arizona State Public Health Laboratory Bureau Chief Victor Waddell, but has not yet received a response.