With the delta variant fueling a rise in COVID-19 cases in Nebraska, the state continues to fall short in testing for the virus, according to an infectious diseases expert.
The testing troubles are not necessarily new, nor are they unique to Nebraska. But the latest shortcoming is occurring at a time when case numbers are rising, schools are returning to in-person learning and some employers are weighing whether to bring employees back to the office.
The combination of factors has some officials worried that Nebraska could in a matter of weeks be facing a crisis similar to that in Southern states, where hospitals are overwhelmed.
“We’re definitely not testing enough ... that part is clear,” said Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security.
Despite the concerns, state and local officials say there are sufficient testing options available. And there are no plans to restart the statewide testing program, TestNebraska, which ceased operating nearly a month ago.
Testing remains a vital tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Federal officials have repeated that point in recent weeks amid a national surge in cases.
“Testing and building testing capacity is a key part of our surge response because we know quickly detecting cases allows us to help prevent outbreaks and contain the virus,” Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said during a July 22 press briefing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that fully vaccinated people get tested within three to five days after a possible close-contact exposure — a change from its prior recommendation that vaccinated individuals get tested if they experienced symptoms after an exposure.
This past week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CBS News that insufficient testing nationwide is preventing experts from gaining a complete understanding of how the delta variant is spreading.
In Nebraska, Lawler said the current testing rate is about one-third of the peak amount experienced last fall.
Statewide test result numbers published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show Nebraska saw a near-record number of reported test results on Nov. 16, 2020, with more than 16,000 tests. More than 4,000 test results were reported on Nov. 1 — the smallest daily total for the entire month.
As COVID-19 vaccines became more widely available into 2021, the number of reported test results declined.
The state hasn’t seen more than 2,000 daily test results reported since July 27, according to HHS data. More than 1,400 test results were reported Aug. 10, which was the largest daily total for the month thus far, according to numbers available as of Saturday.
Testing for COVID-19 is available in more locations today than at many other times during the pandemic. Many pharmacies, hospitals, health centers and primary care physicians offer COVID-19 testing, as do local health departments.
The Douglas County Health Department has not received any reports of testing sites struggling to keep up with demand, according to spokesperson Phil Rooney.
“There seems to be adequate capacity — we haven’t been made aware of any concerns,” he wrote in an email.
The various options statewide are a primary reason why the state has no plans to restart TestNebraska, the testing program funded by the state and operated by NOMI Health.
“At this time there are no plans for the state to reactivate TestNebraska as there are a number of options available to residents who want to be tested,” Khalilah LeGrand, director of communications for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email.
TestNebraska ceased testing individuals after July 18. The program, which cost the state about $45 million, completed roughly 800,000 COVID-19 tests, according to LeGrand.
Utah-based NOMI Health announced this past week that it was opening two testing sites in Nebraska — one in Omaha and one in Lincoln. The effort is not being coordinated by the state.
NOMI Health, in a press release, cited the rising case count in Nebraska as its reason for opening the sites. There is no out-of-pocket cost for the tests, a spokesperson confirmed, but individuals with health insurance should bring their insurance card.
Though there are plenty of options for testing, Lawler said the availability does not translate to accessibility.
Access remains difficult, at best, for many Nebraskans, including those in rural areas and lower socioeconomic neighborhoods — the people who have had access issues throughout the pandemic.
“I think that access to testing remains a problem for a lot of folks,” Lawler said.
Though he stopped short of endorsing TestNebraska, Lawler said there are advantages to having a marketable and recognizable website that provides a one-stop shop for testing information and registration.
The diffuse nature of testing today can create a barrier for residents, Lawler said. So can the cost attached to some testing options.
However, testing is only one tool — albeit an important one — in the effort to slow COVID-19.
People need to get vaccinated, wear masks in indoor public settings and limit large gatherings, Lawler said. Without those measures, Nebraska could risk being the next Louisiana or Mississippi.
Officials in both states have warned that their hospital systems are severely strained. Mississippi announced plans this past week to open a temporary field hospital. In Louisiana, one hospital administrator said the situation there was “close to a breaking point.”
“If we don’t do those things, people are going to end up getting their health care in a tent,” Lawler said of the preventative measures. “And that’s not going to look good.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.