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Remote WA community testing residents for COVID-19, even if they don't have symptoms

Michael Chu
via Flickr Creative Commons
A view in Point Roberts, Washington.

The fire chief in Point Roberts, Washington, is hoping to test hundreds of people in his community for COVID-19, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

Using tests from Northwest Laboratory in Bellingham, Whatcom County Fire District 5 Chief Christopher Carleton hopes he can get at least 400 people in this 1,200-person community to take a test. So far, Carleton says they’ve tested 137 people.

The effort was first reported on by The Bellingham Herald.

The hope is to get a representative sample of the community, and that the testing data will give an idea of the pandemic’s presence in the isolated town. Point Roberts is connected by land only to Canada. To get anywhere else in the United States, at least without a boat or a plane, you have to drive through about 23 miles of British Columbia.

So far, Carleton says he knows of no households in his community that have had a confirmed case of COVID-19.

But it’s hard to be sure.

“If someone went to the mainland and was tested and ended up being positive, I necessarily wouldn’t know that information,” Carleton said. He says they’re working with Whatcom County public health officials to see if they can share that information.

Within the community, they’re using nasal swabs to test for COVID-19.

“We’re able to test two members per household, and we have a drive up at the fire hall,” Carleton said. “We normally get those tests back within 24 hours, and then I make phone calls to everyone, whether they’re positive or negative.”

Like anywhere, the coronavirus pandemic is having a big impact here. But Point Roberts has particular complications. Its businesses rely heavily on the free flow of people across the U.S.-Canada border. Last month, KNKX spoke to the assistant manager at a shipping business, uncertain what would happen once the border restrictions took effect.

Still, Carleton says people appear to be heeding the guidelines: staying home, keeping their distance from each other, and avoiding large gatherings.

“I’m really proud of my community,” Carleton said. “We’ve gone through a lot, with storms and power outages throughout the years, and everybody is extremely resilient.”

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Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.