Marin health care providers must provide COVID-19 testing

Marin County’s public health officer has ordered all medical service providers and health care facilities in the county to begin providing COVID-19 testing to patients by Sept. 25.

Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s Public Health Officer, said the county needs to boost its testing capacity and ensure that patients can obtain test results in a timely fashion.

“Less that 2{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} of our community has been diagnosed with COVID-19, meaning that the vast majority of us are still susceptible to infection and serious illness,” Willis said in a statement. “With the promise of a vaccine still months away, we need to commit to sustainable, widespread testing.”

Under the order, testing could take place at a medical office, at a specified clinic or a testing center operated by a pharmacy or commercial laboratory. The directive states that medical providers should seek payment from patient health plans rather than charge patients for the testing service.

The order comes as the county was cleared by the state Friday to downgrade its coronavirus risk level to “substantial,” or red in the state’s color-coded system. Marin’s move from the state’s highest category of “widespread,” assigned purple, takes effect Tuesday and is expected to enable more businesses and schools to reopen later this month.

Currently, Marin residents can obtain a free coronavirus test at the county’s Civic Center testing site. In an effort to improve test response times, the county signed a $1.6 million contract with the Burlingame-based health technology company, Color, in July to operate the testing site. Willis said Color, which processes testing samples at its own laboratory, is turning tests around in one to two days.

Following the new order, however, the Civic Center testing site will be available only by referral by a health care provider.

“Health care providers who don’t have the capacity to test onsite will be able to refer their patients to the Color testing site,” Willis said. “The county will continue to pay for that.”

Marin residents can be tested without a referral at a public testing site in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood. Tests may be scheduled online.

Willis said by enlisting medical providers to do testing the county will be able to make the $1.6 million it is paying Color stretch further. He said without the help of doctors the $1.6 million contract would likely cover testing costs only through October.

As of Friday, Marin has 5.9 cases per day and a 3{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} positive COVID-19 test rate, according to the county. In total, 71,655 COVID-19 tests had been administered in Marin with 4,060 of the testing coming back positive. Most of the tests were provided by Marin County Public Health.

Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel said Friday that the county has so far paid about $1.6 million for testing, including vendor and staffing costs. Hymel projects the county will spend at least another $1.6 million on testing over the next few months.

“We are expecting these costs to be reimbursed from state and federal emergency funds,” Hymel wrote in an email.

Willis said more testing is needed since COVID-19 can easily be spread by people who are asymptomatic or who have mild symptoms. He noted that there is often a delay between being infected and showing symptoms.

A growing number of counties in the Bay Area and across the state have issued similar orders. In June, Santa Clara County mandated that all large health care systems there begin providing free coronavirus testing for patients in high-risk categories.

Willis said additional testing by health care providers will allow Marin County public health to focus its testing resources on virus hotspots and provide rapid field testing to control outbreaks.