Mass Testing to Begin Soon as Territory Starts Reopening

Come May 4 the territory will be under new order, the yellow phase of the government’s phased reopening strategy, which will soften restrictions and allow for non-essential businesses to begin opening. To safely start opening up the territory the Department of Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said the it will soon begin mass testing for COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reopening “relies on public health strategies, including increased testing of people for the virus, social distancing, isolation, and keeping track of how someone infected might have infected other people.”

These public health strategies are exactly what the Department of Health plans to follow.

During Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s Wednesday news conference Encarnacion said the department is coming to an agreement with two entities, one on St. Croix and another on St. Thomas, to utilize their facilities to conduct mass testing.

“We are well into that phase,” Encarnacion said.

Within a couple weeks, Encarnacion said, the department should have acquired enough equipment and supplies to begin mass testing.

Territorial epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis said the USVI’s rating so far has been good, but more testing is needed.

During Wednesday's news conference, Dr. Esther Ellis says the USVI has been conducting "very robust" contact tracing. (Photo is a screen capture from the press conference)
During Wednesday’s news conference, Dr. Esther Ellis says the USVI has been conducting “very robust” contact tracing. (Photo is a screen capture from the press conference)

“The CDC says if your positivity rate is 10 percent or lower you are doing enough testing. So right now our positivity rating is 7 percent,” she said. “That means only 7 percent of everyone we test is actually positive, that’s really great. That shows that we are casting the net wide, catching mostly negatives, and the positives that we’re catching are quarantined and safely protecting themselves from others. As far as mass laboratory testing we are on track for in the next week to be able to test up to 1,000 samples a day.”

These are the RT-PCR tests that detects the presence of COVID-19.

Ellis said the department is also conducting “very robust contact tracing,” which has led to the recent uptick in pending tests. As of Wednesday’s Department of Health tally, there were 916 total tests, with 66 conformed positives, 807 negatives and 43 pending. That last figure was down from 78 pending Tuesday.

The department plans to continue to conduct contact trace each person who comes up positive for COVID-19.

“The positives that we have been getting lately have all been contacts of confirmed cases. That is the best case scenario. That means our contact tracing is effective. Community acquired cases or cases where someone tests positive and we don’t know where they got it from, we have not had a community acquired case in the U.S. Virgin Islands since April 13. That’s wonderful,” Ellis said.

All pending tests are considered “persons under investigation” and are quarantined until COVID-19 is ruled out Ellis said; if positive, they are quarantined until it is safe for them to return to the community.

The governor said when the administration looked at “easing the doors” back open on the economy they decided they knew, “We are going to get more cases.”

“But it’s not getting the cases that is the problem. It is putting in the work in the contact tracing so that we can quickly find out who a confirmed case has been in contact with and get those people tested quickly. We have those resources to do that right now and that is why we are going towards this,” Bryan said.
Though slowly starting the process of reopening, Bryan said it is still safest to remain at home and limit contact.