Just 1.5 percent of tests for COVID-19 have come back positive in the first major program in the Las Vegas area to offer tests to those without symptoms.
Of 7,778 diagnostic tests conducted at a site at The Orleans, just 119 had come back positive for the new coronavirus as of Monday, officials with University Medical Center said. The mass drive-thru testing, conducted by UMC in partnership with Clark County and the Nevada National Guard, offers testing to anyone who wishes to be tested, a departure from past practices.
The low rate of positivity suggests that “we’re on that trajectory to getting to the next phase of reopening,” said Mason VanHouweling, CEO of Clark County’s public hospital.
The declining rate of positive tests across the state has been a factor cited by Gov. Steve Sisolak in reduction of the restrictions on nonessential businesses. At a news conference Friday, he referenced the “enormous decrease” in the state’s rate of positive tests from the number of people tested. It has declined from a high of 12.66 percent on April 23 to just above 8 percent on Tuesday.
“While it’s good news that we’re making progress, it should remind us all that the effects that we’ve had are working, the protocols we’ve put in place are making a difference,” the governor said Friday. “And that’s why we’re able to move into Phase One (of the reopening), stay in Phase One thus far. Hopefully, in the future we’ll be able to move forward.”
VanHouweling noted that the low rate of positives from The Orleans testing site will “drive down this overall statewide positive number.”
However, a member of the governor’s medical advisory team cautioned against reading too much into the percentage of positive tests from the site.
“This number tells me nothing,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at UNLV. “It tells me a bunch of people got tested who thought, ‘I’ll get tested to be safe.’ It’s not one of the numbers we’re pinning our response to.”
It is difficult to compare rates because “the way we are testing people has changed,” he said.
From two months ago, when the virus first got its foothold in Nevada, until testing began at The Orleans early this month, testing was generally reserved for the very sickest individuals. More recently, as the capacity for testing expanded, individuals with mild symptoms were able to be tested.
And when The Orleans program launched, suddenly anyone could be tested for the virus. UMC officials said the vast majority of those tested at The Orleans site did not have symptoms, but they could not provide a percentage.
“We’re getting a lot more people into testing,” Labus said. “We’d expect the number to go down, especially as you’re testing people who are less sick and less likely to be positive.”
Path to reopening
An aim of the testing program at The Orleans has been to “widen the net on the population to get a true reflection of how widespread the disease is out there in the community,” VanHouweling said.
“People want that peace of mind and the access to the testing,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that anybody who wanted a test could get a test. That’s our philosophy at UMC.”
The test site has drawn people “from all walks of life,” who are representative of the community as a whole, said Dr. Luis Medina-Garcia, an infectious disease specialist at UMC.
The low positivity rate for the virus suggests that “the amount of people who could spread it to others is very low,” Medina-Garcia said.
An overall positive rate of under 10 percent across all testing programs indicates that a community can “open safely in a phased way,” VanHouweling said.
He cited hospital statistics showing that a low percentage of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators are being used by patients with COVID-19.
“I definitely feel all these indicators are showing a clear path to getting into the next phase,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Sisolak said the overall percentage of positive tests is among the considerations as he mulls further relaxation of emergency restrictions.
“Decreasing positivity rates is one of the factors the state of Nevada is monitoring through Phase One and is one of many data points being looked at as Nevada evaluates the data,” said Meghin Delaney, communications director for the governor’s office.
Labus said that from his perspective, the most significant factor to track in reopening is the number of hospitalizations because of COVID-19, which won’t vary based on the numbers of people tested or the percentages of positive tests.
The key, he said, is to scrutinize a variety of factors for “anything that looks really strange and is headed in the wrong direction.”
It would be alarming, he said, if the rate of positive tests were to climb, considering that more people with mild symptoms or no symptoms at all are being tested.
But VanHouweling said that by conducting some of the most widespread testing in the country, the state has been able to show that it’s doing things right.
“I think our state has done a really good job of protecting Nevadans. Otherwise I think we would have had far more infections,” he said.
After Memorial Day, the drive-thru testing program will relocate from a parking structure at The Orleans to the parking garage of the Thomas & Mack Center.
People can schedule a test by visiting the COVID-19 Testing Center on the home page of UMC’s website at www.umcsn.com or by calling Clinical Pathology Laboratories at 702-795-4932.