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All New Mexicans can now get virus testing

Medical personnel adminster COVID-19 tests Tuesday at the Downtown Lovelace Hospital. The state announced Monday night that New Mexicans can now be tested for the virus regardless of whether they have symptoms. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Any New Mexican can now get a free test to determine whether they have COVID-19, regardless of whether they have symptoms associated with the virus.

The New Mexico Department of Health said Monday night that expanded testing would be available to all state residents at no charge beginning on Tuesday.

Previously, testing had been restricted to those with symptoms of the disease and asymptomatic people living with relatives who met specific criteria, according to the Health Department.

David Morgan, a spokesman for the state Health Department, told the Journal the department expanded testing because of greater access to tests and a recognition that the virus can be spread by people without symptoms.

“There are plenty of people out there who are in that same boat, in New Mexico and across the country,” Morgan said.

Tests are available to anyone, regardless of whether they have insurance, Morgan said. Free, in-person testing is available by appointment at sites across the state, as well as at certain drive-through locations.

Lovelace Medical Center, which said last week that it would begin offering drive-through screenings four days a week, began accepting anyone seeking a test on Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at its Downtown Albuquerque location.

Testing at the Lovelace site – set up in a parking lot across Martin Luther King Jr. NE to the south of the main hospital building – moved at a brisk pace early Tuesday afternoon, with some cars in and out of the drive-through area in less than 15 minutes.

At one station, a Lovelace staffer wearing gloves, a gown and a face shield took down insurance information and other identifying information. A Journal staff member who was tested wasn’t asked any questions about symptoms but was asked whether she had to leave the house to go to her job and whether she had used a nasal spray in the past 24 hours.

At another station, a staffer performed the nasal swab test, which took about 30 seconds.

Morgan said screening questions were designed to get a feel for where and how people being tested may have been exposed to the virus.

“There’s no wrong answer,” he said.

Morgan did not say when results will be available but said positive tests will be prioritized over negative ones. If a test is positive, patients will be called by phone.

Staffers at the Lovelace site said that whether positive or negative, test results would be available within three days via MyChart, Lovelace’s online patient portal. More options were available for people who needed hard copies of test results.

Even during busy periods, patients shouldn’t expect to spend more than 30 minutes waiting for a drive-through screening at the hospital, according to Lovelace spokeswoman Whitney Marquez.

“It’s a pretty seamless process at this point,” she said.

Patients seeking a drive-through test should take proof of insurance if they have it. Although there’s no cost to patients, Marquez said Lovelace may bill insurers later.

Going forward, Marquez said drive-through testing will be available at Lovelace every Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

“We don’t want to deter anybody from getting tested,” she said.

The Health Department is also asking patients not to exceed two people per vehicle to prevent further spread of the virus.

Morgan attributed the expanded testing to a series of partnerships with public and private labs across the state. When New Mexico began testing people for the virus earlier this year, Morgan said, the state had only enough capacity to administer a few hundred tests per day.

Today, he said, the state can administer around 5,000 tests each day, with a goal of exceeding 7,000 tests a day. Although the Health Department expects to test more people after loosening the testing criteria, Morgan said the department is not concerned about running out of tests.

He said expanded testing becomes more important as New Mexico begins making plans to allow the reopening of businesses previously ordered to close to slow the spread of the virus. Morgan said giving testing access to as much of the workforce as possible is a key component of reopening businesses and services.

Journal business editor Gabrielle Porter contributed to this report.

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