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caption: UW Medicine nurses test a patient for coronavirus on March 17, 2020, at the University of Washington Northwest Outpatient Medical Center drive-through testing area in North Seattle.
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UW Medicine nurses test a patient for coronavirus on March 17, 2020, at the University of Washington Northwest Outpatient Medical Center drive-through testing area in North Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

UW Medicine to limit Covid testing to people with symptoms or known exposure

In an effort to turn test results around quicker, UW Medicine will start limiting tests to people who present with symptoms or have had contact with a known Covid case. The eligibility change begins January 4 and will continue until further notice.

Additionally, the City Hall, Ballard, and Sammamish testing sites will temporarily close due to short staffing.

UW Medicine has consistently turned around test results within 24 hours for most of the pandemic, said Dr. Geoffrey Baird, acting chair of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at UW Medicine. But high Covid positivity rates and short staffing in recent weeks have caused a lag — sometimes more than two days — in getting results back to people who test positive for Covid.

"Medically speaking, a Covid test that is not back for several days just isn't terribly meaningful," Baird said. "Someone could go on and spread the virus and they wouldn't have the important information they need to make the decision about whether or not to quarantine, or whether or not contacts should isolate, etc."

Baird explained how UW Medicine tests samples collected at testing sites in groups of four, running those combined samples through a robot that flags whether any of them are positive for Covid.

"If one of those mixed pools is positive, we then have that robot liquid handler spit back out those four individual samples," he said. "And then we have to go put those samples individually onto another robot that then tests them all again."

Baird pointed to King County's Auburn testing site, which most recently reported a 49% test positivity rate as of Tuesday.

"We have oftentimes seen sites across Seattle at five to 10% positive, and that previous peaks, we have seen positive rates of 20 to 25%," he said.

Baird said UW Medicine expects to have the capacity to administer 8,000 to 12,000 tests per day starting Jan. 4.