Santa Clara County's biggest hospitals coming up short on COVID tests, county says

In Santa Clara County, most residents are turning to county-operated testing and vaccination sites rather than their own health care provider, public health officials said Friday during a plea for the county's biggest hospital systems to step it up.

The call from local leaders comes as the omicron-fueled surge pushes healthcare systems to the brink, with testing shortages and understaffed and overworked employees.

"We are still in the throes of the highest infection rates that we've seen to date during this entire two years. We've learned omicron spreads like wildfire," said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County's top health official.

Nonetheless, it will take a collaborative approach to ride out the omicron wave, Cody says.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said testing has always been a challenge throughout the pandemic, but county sites have borne the brunt of testing and vaccinating residents.

"We really need all the large healthcare systems in the county to do their part, so that the burden isn't solely on the county itself, which is currently providing a disproportionate percentage of the testing to our community," Williams said.

Officials said the county serves 15% of the population's health needs but conducts 20% of all COVID tests in the county and handles 37% of vaccinations. Kaiser Permanente serves about 30% of patients but does only 12% of testing and 14.8% of inoculations. And the Palo Alto Medical Foundation serves 16.5% of county residents but only does 2.4% of testing and 3.5% of vaccinations.

A spokesperson for Sutter Health, which Palo Alto Medical Foundation is housed under, emailed a statement to KTVU that read, "We have increased our overall testing capacity… The Palo Medical Foundation doubled appointment availability for COVID testing including licensed retail and community sites and at-home antigen tests."

Kaiser representatives also responded to criticism from county health leaders saying in an email, "We object to any suggest that our front line health care workers are not doing their fair share. We are baffled by the county’s suggestion that anyone is holding back."

Under a September 2020 health order, large healthcare providers are legally required to provide prompt testing to patients who are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone who has COVID.

Also on Friday, health leaders explained the differences between the two major types of tests used to detect the virus-- PCR and antigen tests. They said understanding which test to use and when could alleviate the ongoing shortage of tests. 

Cody said antigen tests should be used to determine if someone can exit quarantine. 

"When am I no longer infectious? When am I no longer a risk to others? That's when an antigen test is the best test to use there," she said.

She said PCR tests should be used to determine if someone is infected with COVID. PCR tests are generally more sensitive than antigen tests, but antigen tests are good at detecting when people are most infectious, the county said.