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.
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.