LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts announced some fixes to the TestNebraska initiative on Wednesday to address startup problems, and he pushed back against a newspaper editorial giving the program a “failing grade.”
“First of all, guys, it’s been a week and a half (since the testing began),” Ricketts said, when asked about the editorial. “It’s a brand-new program.”
“We rushed this to get it out as quickly as possible,” he said. “We certainly could have spent a month or two testing this, but we thought the better deal here was to make sure we had more testing.”
An editorial in the Grand Island Independent on Tuesday said TestNebraska had failed medical providers in that central Nebraska hot spot for COVID-19 because the public-private testing collaboration hadn’t shared positive test results with public health officials there since testing began. That left doctors and nurses “flying blind” in battling the highly contagious virus, the newspaper said.
Ricketts said that the editorial was “premature” because TestNebraska data had been incorporated into the state’s coronavirus data system by Tuesday night and information was now being provided to local public health districts.
Incorporating such data streams takes time, he told reporters at his daily coronavirus briefing, in which he announced that a new hotline had been set up to take citizens’ questions about TestNebraska.
The previous hotline, which had been staffed by personnel with a state poison control center, had become overwhelmed will callers, leading to hours-long wait times on hold after the state, on Friday, expanded the priority for testing to those 65 & over and packinghouse workers.
The new hotline — 402-207-9377 — is being staffed by employees of the Utah firms signed to a $27 million, no-bid contract with the Ricketts administration to eventually ramp up COVID-19 testing to 3,000 tests a day. That would be more than triple the amount of tests when the contract was signed April 19.
Ricketts also said a mistake had been corrected in which a local public health official had erroneously told some people who couldn’t find a time slot for a TestNebraska test to come in anyway. Everyone must schedule a test, the governor said.
Ricketts on Wednesday again urged Nebraskans to sign up for testing via TestNebraska.com, saying it will help officials determine where the virus is spreading and guide decisions on loosening social distancing measures. But he also urged patience, because the rush of new applicants approved for testing had gobbled up all the available time slots for tests.
“Even if it wasn’t a perfect solution, we weren’t going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said of the ramp-up problems.
Ricketts announced the TestNebraska initiative on April 21, the same day Iowa announced an identical TestIowa program. Under the contract, four Utah companies — which were already running a TestUtah initiative in that state — agreed to set up an online assessment for Nebraskans and provide the hard-to-obtain equipment and supplies to dramatically expand testing in the state.
The governor has insisted that no other group of companies, including those in Nebraska, had the available COVID-19 test kits and high-tech analytical equipment necessary, though some state senators have questioned that.
Testing via TestNebraska began last week at sites in Omaha and Grand Island with CHI Health and Nebraska National Guard personnel staffing the drive-thru tents. A Lincoln site was added on Friday, and one in Schuyler started on Monday. On Thursday, a test site will open in Norfolk, and on Friday, one will debut in Lexington, replacing test sites in Schuyler and Grand Island.
A total of 1,278 people were tested Tuesday. The companies have promised to eventually provide up to 3,000 tests per day and to operate six drive-thru test sites across the state, with locations guided by the online assessments.
But there have been questions raised about the low rate of positive findings generated by the tests, both in Nebraska and in Utah. So far, of the 3,575 tests done in Nebraska, only 121 people tested positive, a rate of only 3.4%. That compares to 17% for all other coronavirus tests done in the state.
Ricketts said the disparity is because the non-TestNebraska testing has focused on hot spots across the state, such as meatpacking communities where coronavirus has infected hundreds of workers, resulting in a high rate of positive tests. TestNebraska tests, he said, have included many first responders and health care workers who have shown no symptoms, so the rate of positive tests will be much lower.
When asked if the state was collecting data to compare the rate of positive tests for just those saying they had symptoms — a more apples-to-apples comparison — Ricketts said no. He said that the testing done by TestNebraska had been validated before the program launched by comparing it with tests done by the public health lab in the state. He said he did not know if the tests had been validated since then.
Also at Wednesday’s briefing:
- Ricketts updated the toll taken by the virus on residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Such long-term care residents accounted for 73 of 103 deaths caused by the virus as of Wednesday afternoon. A total of 292 residents and 223 employees at 55 facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Ricketts has come under fire for refusing to release information on the numbers of cases in specific long-term care facilities, unlike Iowa and many other states. He said his policy is to release aggregate numbers only.
- The governor acknowledged that some information about infections out of a Dakota City meatpacking plant had inadvertently not been shared immediately Friday with officials in adjacent Sioux City, Iowa. The mistake was discovered Monday and rectified then, he said.
- Four-hundred vials of remdesivir, a COVID-19 treatment that has shown promise in reducing severe symptoms and preventing fatalities, are headed to Nebraska. They are part of the 677,000 purchased by the federal government. The University of Nebraska Medical Center was among the institutions that participated in the testing of the drug.
- First lady Susanne Shore said the Nebraska Impact COVID-19 Relief Fund she helped launch has raised $340,000 so far and spent $260,000, mostly on food boxes to help those affected by the outbreak in hard-hit meatpacking communities.
She said the effort has become a “crisis response group” for families in need. Shore called for donations of money and homemade cloth masks, directing donors to the NEImpact.org website.
- Ricketts said it was appropriate for the Omaha Tribe to set up COVID-19 checkpoints at entrances to its headquarters in Macy as a way to protect tribal members, as long as the tribe wasn’t blocking nearby U.S. Highway 75. In South Dakota, the governor and the Oglala Sioux Tribe have been battling over similar checkpoints.