Governor cautions against taxing COVID-19 testing capacity

Medical personnel screen patients Sunday at the Presbyterian COVID-19 drive-up testing center at PresNow in Northwest Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
Medical personnel screen patients Sunday at the Presbyterian COVID-19 drive-up testing center at PresNow in Northwest Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

As COVID-19 spreads through the state, the New Mexico governor cautioned against continuing to “burn through (testing equipment) in ways that are not as organized as (state officials) want it to be.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other health officials said during a public briefing that the state has a growing capacity to test for the virus that is capable of meeting the state’s needs. But she stressed that only those with symptoms should get tested.

The governor said the 28 confirmed cases in the state represent a small fraction of the 2,354 tests that have been processed in New Mexico.

Capacity will soon increase, she said, because the state is working to get FDA-approval to start using machines that will significantly increase how many samples can be tested in a day.

“That’s critical. So it’s not labor intensive. … We want to use all the technology,” Lujan Grisham said. “Are we doing more to expand testing capacity? The answer is yes.”

Currently, a maximum of 700 samples can be processed in a day between both a health department lab and TriCore Reference Industries, said Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department.

Health officials stressed Wednesday that not everyone needs to be tested. Those with a fever, a cough or shortness of breath should call the state hotline to be screened to see if a test is appropriate.

The CDC was reporting that as of Monday there were fewer than 32,000 completed tests nationwide, though that number has surely grown in recent days.

Testing for the virus is done in a lab after samples are collected from patients at hospitals and clinics.

Presbyterian Healthcare Service and Lovelace Medical Center last weekend launched drive-through COVID-19 sites in Albuquerque, where people afraid they had the virus could give a nasal swab that was then tested. Quickly, lines of cars formed outside the clinics, and Lovelace had to stop services temporarily because of a lack of supplies.

Lovelace officials couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Taking samples requires a deep nasal swab that can cause the patient to cough, so health care workers have to wear protective equipment to complete the test. Officials want to preserve that equipment by only testing those who meet certain criteria, like being sick or having contacted with people with the virus.

Department of Health Cabinet Secretary Kathy Kunkel said at the briefing that there are currently six sites where people can give samples to be tested for the virus without leaving their car:

Presbyterian in Albuquerque, Presbyterian Española. Christus St. Vincent in Santa Fe, Holy Cross Hospital in Taos, San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington and Gallup Regional Medical Center.

A swab sample can also be taken by an individual’s provider, local area hospital, or at clinics throughout the state, McGinnis Porter said. But she said people should call ahead and give the clinic a warning before going in.

Melanie Mozes, a spokeswoman for Presbyterian, said that the hospital is still taking samples at its PresNow location on Coors.

“Of the approximately 1,800 visits to our PresNow screen-and-test clinic in the past three days, 890 of the individuals screened met criteria for a test,” She said in an email. “We want to continue encouraging the community to get screened before coming for a test which they can do either through the state hotline or through the free online and video screenings we are offering for the entire community.”

Kunkel said hospitals as of yesterday have standardized the screening process for who can be tested.

The health department is also launching five drive-through testing sites in Roswell, Las Vegas, Las Cruces, Taos and for Albuquerque at the West Side shelter.

“Who should be going to these sites to get a test? We do not want the walking well (going),” Lujan Grisham said. “I know people are nervous. I know you are. It’s hay-fever season. … And in this environment that feels scary and is intimidating.”

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