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Nebraska ramps up COVID testing program, but recommends small Thanksgiving gatherings

Nebraska ramps up COVID testing program, but recommends small Thanksgiving gatherings

Dr. Gary Anthone discusses the current treatments for coronavirus.

LINCOLN — The state has ramped up its COVID-19 testing capacity through its TestNebraska program, but to be safe, officials are calling on Nebraskans to limit the size of their Thanksgiving gatherings.

Over the past month, the number of tests performed through TestNebraska has increased by almost 25%.

TestNebraska is a testing program offered free of charge that was launched in April by Gov. Pete Ricketts via a $27 million no-bid contract with a group of Utah companies.

TestNebraska, which is doing the bulk of the tests in the state, performed 26,695 tests during the week ending Nov. 14, more than double the average swabs done in July.

Of course, in mid-July, the number of daily infections reported in the state was between 104 and 340. In recent days, that number has varied between 1,912 and 3,440.

Taylor Gage, a spokesman for the governor, said the state began increasing TestNebraska’s capacity two weeks ago in anticipation of a surge in testing demand after Thanksgiving.

For instance, test sites at Oak View Mall and in South Omaha and North Omaha can now provide up to 2,300 tests per day, 900 more than before.

And testing hours were expanded at the South Omaha site, with expansions considered at other Omaha locations.

In addition, the state has added a second lab to process TestNebraska tests at CHI Health-St. Elizabeth Hospital in Lincoln. The lab, which cost $2.4 million to set up, is in the final validation and training stage and would be able to double the processing of TestNebraska tests to 6,000 tests per day, Gage said.

Pete Ricketts mug (copy) (copy)

Pete Ricketts

But Ricketts, at a coronavirus briefing on Friday, made it clear that the safest option for Thanksgiving is to reduce the size of gatherings — not get a test, receive a negative result and then belly up to a big feast.

“The virus spreads from one person to another, so the larger the group you have, the more opportunity the virus has to spread to others,” he said.

Getting a test just “minimizes” the risk, Ricketts said, because even if your test comes back negative, you could contract the virus after being tested, then bring it to the dinner table.

“The best thing to do is keep the size of family groups small,” he said.

The TestNebraska program was launched hurriedly in April. At the time, states were struggling to find testing supplies and scrambling to set up test sites and processing labs to determine how extensively COVID-19 was spreading through their states.

The program was similar to TestUtah, which had been launched by a group of high-tech companies from Utah’s “silicon slope.” Iowa also launched TestIowa, inking a $26 million no-bid contract with the companies.

But TestNebraska started slowly, failing to meet an initial goal of performing 3,000 tests a day and drawing criticism from some state senators about the haste at which a contract had been signed with a group of companies that, except for 2½ weeks in Utah, had never conducted such health testing before.

Some lawmakers wondered why local public health experts, such as those at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, hadn’t been tapped instead.

But in a written response to a recent state financial audit obtained by The World-Herald, Doug Carlson, who led negotiations with Nomi Health and the other Utah firms for the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, said it was in the best interest of the state to enter into the contract because of the coronavirus emergency.

The Nebraska Public Health Lab didn’t have the capacity required by the state, Carlson wrote, and neither did three other companies contacted by the state: Roche Diagnostics, Qiagen and Thermo Fisher.

“Test Nebraska has provided excellent value for the state,” he wrote, in providing “free and easily accessible” tests for the state’s residents.

Ricketts has also steadfastly defended the signing of the emergency contract, saying there were no options available besides the Utah group that could provide so many tests and the necessary lab equipment so quickly.

As of Friday, the program had delivered more than 437,000 test results — about a third of the 1.2 million COVID-19 tests performed in the state, Gage said.

But computer glitches and problems have arisen here and in other states.

For instance, the State of Utah no longer uses the Salt Lake City company Co-Diagnostics Inc., which has provided almost 700,000 COVID-19 test kits for Nebraska. Amid questions about why the Co-Diagnostics tests were picking up an unusually low number of positive readings compared with other tests, Utah opened up the bidding for a second round of tests.

A California firm, Fulgent Therapeutics, was selected as the new supplier for TestUtah after scoring much higher on its level of expertise, the Salt Lake Tribune reported last month.

Gage said the Cornhusker State is “very pleased” with the performance of the Co-Diagnostic tests provided here, though he added that the state was “evaluating its options” about opening up bidding for future test purchases.

Nebraska received 540,000 tests from the company via the initial contract and has purchased an additional 110,000 tests for $3.75 million, according to Gage.

“Our validation shows the positivity rate (for Co-Diagnostics products) is consistent with FDA and CDC guidelines,” he said.

The state regularly tests the accuracy of its TestNebraska tests with known test results from the state’s Public Health Lab, he said. In the most recent tests, on Oct. 26, the sensitivity rate for the TestNebraska tests was 95%, meaning that in 95 of 100 tests, they accurately matched the testing done at the Public Health Lab.

Gage added that a “no-notice” inspection of the TestNebraska lab was conducted in August by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That probe found two minor discrepancies but overall graded the lab as “highly functioning.”

Co-Diagnostics said in a statement Friday that it continues to provide COVID-19 tests to other labs in Utah, in the U.S. and around the world.

TestIowa also had some initial glitches.

The Tribune, quoting an Iowa health official, said that early efforts to confirm the accuracy of TestIowa testing showed that testers were finding the virus in only 49% of positive samples. After making procedural changes, the accuracy rate rose to 95%, the newspaper reported.

Gage said Nebraska did not have to make similar adjustments but has constantly sought “the highest accuracy possible to include upkeep of equipment and training of staff.”

Despite a recent uptick in demand for tests, Nebraskans can typically get a TestNebraska slot within 24 to 48 hours, Gage said. The turnaround time for results, according to the state’s website, is now about 43 hours for TestNebraska, which is slightly better than the state average of 48 hours. Ricketts said he got a recent test result from the program in 36 hours.

The World-Herald still fields some complaints about TestNebraska, including one about getting a negative test result despite raging symptoms and a later test at a doctor’s office coming back positive.

Gage said those things will happen.

“Even with highly accurate testing, there will still be occasional instances where another test will show a different result,” he said. “This is why it’s important to isolate if you’re showing symptoms and not feeling well even if a test result comes back negative.”

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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