New Mexico got aggressive start on testing for virus - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico got aggressive start on testing for virus

People arrive at a testing facility across the street from Lovelace Medical Center, 601 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NE, on Monday. New Mexico’s per capita testing is among the highest in the nation. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico got off to a quick start testing for COVID-19. Last week, its testing rate lagged behind only states trying to counter serious outbreaks of people with the disease.

Although the virus spread in some parts of the country before large-scale testing was available, New Mexico had a fast start once the first cases in the state were announced on March 11. Public health officials have said that aggressive testing can be beneficial by creating data about where the disease is spreading.

“I think what’s important is to identify individuals who are infected, and once individuals who are infected have been identified, then our public health officials can intervene and help do the contact tracing and help with quarantine,” said Dr. Karissa Culbreath, medical director and infectious disease division chief at TriCore Reference Laboratories.

Tests in New Mexico are processed at both a state laboratory and TriCore, which tests samples collected by providers across the state, including at University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian and Lovelace hospitals.

Both labs have expanded their testing capacity by getting federal approval to use different testing platforms since the virus started spreading.

“The danger in these situations is the people who have the virus who don’t know they have the virus,” Culbreath said. “So as we are doing testing, we are identifying those who are infected, and then they are able to quarantine instead of being out in the public and out in the community.”

Culbreath said that at one point last week, New Mexico’s per capita testing rate was third in the country. On Friday, an analysis by The New York Times found that New Mexico had the fourth-highest testing rate, behind New York, Washington and Louisiana.

Those three states have many more cases of the virus than New Mexico. Louisiana and Washington on Monday had about 4,000 and 5,000 confirmed cases, respectively, and New York had nearly 66,000 cases, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

New Mexico, by comparison, on Monday evening had reported 281 cases.

Data for state-by-state testing is changing rapidly, as more efficient testing practices are put into place. By Monday, the news organization Vox reported that Hawaii and Vermont had eclipsed New Mexico in per capita testing.

But the Land of Enchantment still was processing more tests than most other states.

On Monday, New Mexico had processed more than 12,500 COVID-19 tests, roughly the same number as Oregon, which has twice as many people. Virginia, which has about four times as many people as New Mexico, had processed 12,000 tests, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

About 950,000 tests have been processed throughout the country.


How did New Mexico end up near the top of the country in terms of testing?

Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Chad Smelser attributed the state’s high rate of testing to the governor’s early push to obtain test kits.

“The governor has been very aggressive in providing new equipment (including tests),” he said.

He also credited the work of TriCore and the state laboratory in reporting positive test results within 48 hours.

“We have an excellent public and private collaboration,” he said.

Culbreath said TriCore’s business model – a centralized lab that processes tests for the major hospitals in the state – is also unique and creates efficiency. While most hospitals across the country process their own tests or rely on a national lab, many New Mexico hospitals outsourced the task to TriCore, a local business, she said.

Testing for COVID-19 continues at Balloon Fiesta Park on Monday. New Mexico has been one of the more aggressively testing states.

As of Monday evening, TriCore had processed 10,000 tests, said Beth Bailey, a spokeswoman for the lab. “With this current outbreak, it really shows how TriCore can ramp up testing that is highly competitive,” Culbreath said. “We are able to do testing in such an amazing way because we already had an approach to statewide diagnostic instead of everybody working by themselves.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, told MSNBC last week that although the state’s capacity was higher than that of many others, it still needed to improve.

“We’re a state that has been doing better, I think, in terms of per capita representation of testing,” she said. “But it’s not enough to stay proactive … so we’d like to be doing more.”

It’s not clear if New Mexico will hold onto its high rate of testing.

Smelser noted that New Mexico “can’t control the supply chain.” So the state is hoping to reduce the need for testing by urging “self-isolation” for people who may think they have the virus but don’t have symptoms.

Early test preparation

At TriCore, lab officials were working to validate a testing platform in February, weeks before the first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported in the state.

“By the time there were actually cases that were announced, we had already been in the process of testing capacity and doing our internal work to validate testing platforms,” Culbreath said.

Since New Mexico announced its first case, analysts have been testing samples for the virus 24/7 at the company’s “core” lab in Albuquerque, Culbreath said.

Originally, the lab was processing tests using a manual method that was approved by the FDA. But TriCore has since gotten approval to use a machine that allows it to test at a higher capacity. The lab’s daily testing capacity went from 300 to 500 and is now about 1,000, Culbreath said.

Officials at the New Mexico Department of Health didn’t respond to testing questions Monday. State officials previously said the state lab had a capacity of several hundred per day. Culbreath said that as of last weekend, people in a hospital can expect results in 24 to 48 hours and patients who aren’t hospitalized are getting results in three to five days.

As the state labs expand their testing capacity, Culbreath said, the time it takes to get results will drop. Currently, TriCore is prioritizing testing patients who are in hospitals.

“That does two things. That helps to ensure the patients in the hospital who are requiring more medical intervention and are the sickest patients are getting a diagnosis faster,” Culbreath said. “The other thing it does is help to preserve the protective equipment, the masks and the gowns. If we can identify that a patient doesn’t have coronavirus, than we can preserve the personal protective equipment for other patients.”

Journal investigative reporter Colleen Heild contributed to this report.


Home » News » New Mexico News » New Mexico got aggressive start on testing for virus

Insert Question Legislature form in Legis only stories

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email

taboola desktop

ABQjournal can get you answers in all pages


Questions about the Legislature?
Albuquerque Journal can get you answers
Email addresses are used solely for verification and to speed the verification process for repeat questioners.
Isotopes manager Lopez can toast to a career milestone
ABQnews Seeker
Veteran manager gets 1,000th career victory ... Veteran manager gets 1,000th career victory with the Isotopes on Sunday, days after getting loss 1,000 as well.
Photos: Isotopes take on Sugar Land during Mariachis Night ...
ABQnews Seeker
Track and field: Lobos send a dozen to NCAA ...
ABQnews Seeker
Twelve athletes from the New Mexico ... Twelve athletes from the New Mexico track and field team have made, in total, 15 qualifying marks for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field ...
UNM women's basketball adds Gonzaga to this season's schedule
ABQnews Seeker
UNM will take on powerhouse Gonzaga ... UNM will take on powerhouse Gonzaga in a pre-conference matchup this season in Spokane, Washington. It will be the opener of a home-and-home series ...
Pro golf's feud is over; Notah Begay III weighs ...
ABQnews Seeker
Begay, 50, checked his email to ... Begay, 50, checked his email to make sure it was real — "I actually thought, 'is it April Fools Day?'" — and sure enough, ...
Florida official says migrants flown to California went willingly, ...
ABQnews Seeker
Asylum-seekers, mostly from Colombia and Venezuela, ... Asylum-seekers, mostly from Colombia and Venezuela, had been picked up in El Paso, Texas, taken to New Mexico and then put on charter flights ...
Michael J. Sheehan legacy: Archbishop took over in Santa ...
ABQnews Seeker
Archbishop Emeritus Michael J. Sheehan, who ... Archbishop Emeritus Michael J. Sheehan, who died earlier this week, took reins of Archdiocese of Santa Fe at crisis point and led for the ...
Nine in New Mexico and Texas accused of operating ...
ABQnews Seeker
Members of the ring allegedly picked ... Members of the ring allegedly picked up undocumented immigrants in Doña Ana County and El Paso County, Texas, and drove them north, often to ...
US House panel investigates ties between US Interior secretary, ...
ABQnews Seeker
Republican members of the U.S. House ... Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources are raising concerns about ties between Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and an Indigenous group ...