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Midlands Voices: Hearing showed TestNebraska's improvements and successes

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As COVID-19 began to spread earlier this year, state and public health leaders in Nebraska mobilized to meet the challenge.

One of those steps taken by Gov. Pete Ricketts was the formation and launch of TestNebraska — a public-private partnership that has provided more than 260,000 COVID-19 tests at no charge to Nebraskans. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee held an oversight hearing in September in which we examined TestNebraska and the $27 million emergency contract that funded the program and was authorized under the governor’s COVID-19 emergency declaration.

At the hearing, we heard important testimony from state officials recounting the effort to put a testing program in place during a chaotic period in March and April, and the ongoing nimbleness and flexibility of TestNebraska to address evolving circumstances. Given the facts at the time and the urgency of the situation, Gov. Ricketts and other state officials made a good call.

Might another pathway have yielded similar results? Possibly. But TestNebraska has been more than sufficient in addressing an urgent public health need. Many states are still struggling with the delivery of widespread free public testing while TestNebraska has been a success story.

From its inception, TestNebraska was built with a singular goal: create a system capable of testing as many Nebraskans as possible, by prioritizing not only ease of access for citizens but also efficient and smart use of resources. To make this happen, the state’s partner and general contractor, Nomi Health, built a custom patient assessment platform from scratch, one that not only made it easy for Nebraskans to be tested, but that also collected invaluable data which the state has leveraged to make better-informed decisions as the pandemic developed.

While hospital and public health systems across the country needed immediate access to scarce resources — including expert personnel, FDA-authorized test kits and high-quality lab equipment — and to develop an efficient process, not only has TestNebraska delivered, but it has exceeded expectations. Even now as local hospitals continue working to manage higher levels of the virus, TestNebraska is more important than ever.

A critic of TestNebraska acknowledged that many of their concerns were addressed in testimony and during questions and answers at the hearing. We heard how TestNebraska has conducted testing in more than 120 Nebraska communities, assembled strike teams to test at meatpacking plants and nursing homes and adjusted to accept walk-up and unregistered patients at testing sites.

The bottom line is that Nomi Health is doing what was required under the contract. TestNebraska is serving an important role as a free testing service for COVID-19 alongside several alternatives that are not free to the public. The state is managing the program such that adjustments are made to address new and emerging hot spots as needed.

And as staffing issues at TestNebraska’s lab partner, CHI, recently slowed processing times, the lab worked closely with the state, Nomi Health and other partners to address delays. In mid-October, turnaround times were averaging two days or less.

Fortunately, our hearing provided an opportunity for state officials to share facts, answer questions and dispel misinformation about TestNebraska, an important and effective tool to help combat the virus.

Robert Hilkemann is a state senator representing Legislative District 4 in Omaha.

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