COVID-19 pandemic impacts newborn screening program in Washington

SPOKANE, Wash. — Nearly 85,0000 babies are born in Washington every year.

Those newborns are eligible for two tests through a newborn screening program that detects infants with serious disorders.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted this screening program, and babies who miss this test could potentially be in life-threatening danger.

More than 84,000 babies were born in 2019 of pre-pandemic. More than 169,000 tests were expected to be performed, but around 4,000 tests are not done.

During the pandemic, nearly 83,000 babies were born. More than 165,000 tests were expected, but only more than 158,000 tests were completed.

While that decline of 3,000 tests may not sound much, healthcare providers say it’s significant.

“Most of them really cause serious harm if they weren’t detected,” said Cindy Roberts Hollon, a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at Multi Clinic Rockwood.

She says early detection of the disorders could protect or even save your child.

“How the neurons are forming, how the child is growing, how are they eating, how is the nutrition getting to the brain… all of that is relevant to these diseases,” Roberts Hollon said.

All babies who are born in Washington state are legally required to take the first screening within 48 hours, detecting 32 disorders to prevent severe complications later on.

The screening program temporarily suspended recommendations to collect the second test results in April 2020 due to COVID-19.

“Uncertainty about what would look like there was a lot of fear and we were struggling to know what the best what the safety thing was for family,” said John Thompson, Director of Newborn screening program at Washington State Department of Health.

That concern led the department to reverse the guidance a couple of months later. If anything serious is detected on the first test, the director says the second test within 7 to 14 days is crucial.

“The second screening really catches some of the severe forms that we missed on the first, plus a number of milder forms of conditions that would benefit from the early identification,” said Thompson.

Still, some parents are hesitant to bring their child in for reasons only they may know.

“Newborn screen was created because all of these were treatable, and if we don’t test them and find them, and we can’t treat them, and make sure your child develops the healthiest way,” said Roberts Hollon.

Each state has its own list of tests they require.

And all providers are legally responsible to perform those tests unless parents refuse due to religious beliefs or select ideology.

For more information about the newborn screening program, click here.