LINCOLN — New equipment and robotics will help a Nebraska hospital lab process up to 3,000 COVID-19 tests a day, a top hospital official said Tuesday.
Derek Vance, president of St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, said hospital employees worked around the clock over the past week to set up the lab and make sure the equipment and staff are getting accurate results. In normal times, it can take months to complete that process.
The lab will process the tests being collected through the state’s TestNebraska initiative. Gov. Pete Ricketts said the first two TestNebraska sites in Omaha and Grand Island conducted 251 tests Monday as part of a soft launch for testing.
Eventually, the governor said he expects six TestNebraska sites across the state will be doing 500 tests each per day. Nebraska State Patrol troopers will deliver the tests to the lab.
There, between 15 and 25 employees, mostly lab assistants, will work on processing the tests, Vance said. The employees are being drawn from several CHI hospitals. But he said the robotic equipment will be key to meeting the 3,000-test goal. The lab, which is separate from the regular hospital lab, will operate 24 hours a day.
The TestNebraska initiative was launched two weeks ago, when Ricketts signed a $26.8 million contract with four Utah firms to provide online assessments and materials to test 540,000 Nebraskans for the coronavirus.
The equipment includes swabs, chemicals needed to process the tests and up to 10 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines that, according to the state’s contract, “must be capable of producing accurate results a majority of the time” if tests are done correctly. Included in the contract was the equipment installed at St. Elizabeth.
Ricketts said he signed the contract to significantly increase testing in Nebraska. As of Monday, the state was processing 1,300 to 1,500 tests a day at several hospital and private labs. Officials have said increased testing will help identify who needs to be isolated and who doesn’t, thus opening the way for businesses and schools to resume more normal operations.
As of Tuesday afternoon, he said that 123,508 people have taken the TestNebraska assessment. People who took the assessment are now getting emails asking them to update the information and, at least in some cases, schedule a test.
Ricketts said he wants more people to take the assessment. But if fewer than 540,000 people sign up, he said, the state may change how it handles testing to make use of the available tests.
The briefing came one day after dine-in restaurants, hair salons and other businesses were allowed to reopen in 59 Nebraska counties, including the Omaha metro area.
It also came as the state neared 6,500 confirmed cases of the virus. The proportion of tests coming back positive also continued to climb, which reflects wider spread of the virus. As of Tuesday evening, 17.7% of tests were positive. When testing started in the state, fewer than 5% of tests were positive.
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Ricketts said Nebraska may explore ways to use and encourage testing for coronavirus antibodies “down the road.” Such tests are starting to become available in the state through private laboratories. The tests show who has had the virus and developed an immune response.
For now, however, he said the focus remains on testing aimed at finding people who are currently infected with virus. Once infected people are found, they can isolate themselves to avoid exposing others while contact tracers can reach out to people they may have exposed previously.
Nebraska is in the process of beefing up the number of contact tracing workers. So far, the state has deployed 220 state workers in six teams to help local health departments. Plans call for adding four more teams by the end of next week, bringing the number to 325, Ricketts said.