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COVID spike triggers more testing and waiting

A security guard directs motorists waiting in line Wednesday at Balloon Fiesta Park to get tested for coronavirus. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Arthur Scott sat in a car for 2½ hours at Balloon Fiesta Park on Wednesday waiting to get a COVID-19 test.

“That’s 2½ hours of my life that I’ll never get back,” said Scott, 49. “I got here about 7 a.m., when they opened, but there were already about a billion cars ahead of me.”

Scott, who works in construction, needed to get tested because one of his co-workers tested positive for the virus.

With a spike in COVID-19 infections in New Mexico and an enormous surge in neighboring Arizona and Texas, “there is renewed across-the-board interest by the public to get tested, to know the results and to self-isolate if needed,” said New Mexico Department of Health spokesman David Morgan.

The sheer volume of people wanting to get tested, as well as the number of employers now requiring it, translates to more time in line and, not surprisingly, more positive test results, he said.

Over the July 3-5 Independence Day weekend, 16,866 people were tested at sites around the state, including the DOH’s 70 test sites in 27 counties, Morgan said.

Recently, the DOH launched an online portal at cvtestreg.nmhealth.org for people to register for testing at DOH sites. A list of sites around the state can be found at https://cvprovider.nmhealth.org/directory.html.

“Two or three weeks ago, we were doing about 300 tests a day, and now we’re well north of 800 a day,” said Melanie Mozes, spokeswoman for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which manages the Balloon Fiesta Park site, west of Interstate 25 and north of Alameda.

The Lovelace Medical Center site on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, just west of I-25, had been testing about 100 cars a day, said chief operating officer Denzil Ross. “But now we’re seeing in the neighborhood of 300 and expect that might climb to 400.”

Bicyclists Heike Kalesse, left, and Sebastian Los joined a line of motorists that snaked nearly a mile toward a COVID testing site at Lovelace hospital near Downtown. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Sebastian Los, 31, and Heike Kalesse, 40, were in the drive-through line to get tested at the Lovelace hospital site Wednesday. That line snaked along MLK, west to Edith NE and then south past Iron Street SE, a distance of about a mile – and Los and Kalesse were on bicycles.

The two had recently traveled outside New Mexico, “and I just wanted to be safe for my roommates,” Los said. They had been in the Lovelace line for over two hours and had decided to go there only after being turned away from the walk-in site at University of New Mexico Hospital.

Meanwhile, at the UNMH walk-in site, a Journal employee who arrived at 6 a.m., an hour before it opened, said that there were already more than 50 people ahead of him. Because tests were capped at 100 and only one staff person was collecting the samples, dozens had to be turned away. Many who did provide samples Wednesday found the entire process from arrival to nose swab took about five hours.

The collection itself is not time-consuming. A long swab is pushed up a nostril for several seconds, and then removed and placed in a sterile container for transfer to TriCore Reference Laboratories, where it is analyzed for the presence of coronavirus, usually within 48 hours. Instructions are provided to the individual being tested on how to obtain the results.

Since restrictions on businesses were relaxed at the beginning of June, new virus cases in New Mexico have increased by about 60%. On Tuesday alone, there were 221 new cases and four deaths. On Wednesday, the DOH reported that the total number of people who had tested positive since the DOH began tracking the virus was 14,017, including 527 deaths.

According to a forecast from Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico could have 170 additional COVID-related deaths by Aug. 8.

“We’re definitely handling the largest volume (of sample collections) in Albuquerque,” Mozes said. “We do have people who show up hours in advance of our opening time, but that was the case prior to the influx we’re seeing now.”

Balloon Fiesta Park was forced to shut down traffic by 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday because the line of motorists extended to Alameda NE, resulting in waits of up to six hours for a COVID test. (Courtesy of KOAT)

Ordinarily, the Balloon Fiesta Park site is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends. On Tuesday, Mozes said, “we closed the line at about 9:15 a.m. because the line was out to Alameda, and based on that we knew, some people would be waiting five or six hours.”

On Wednesday, the site closed at 11 a.m., so it could be reconfigured to improve traffic flow.

Security teams, she said, try to estimate when to start turning vehicles away in anticipation of the closing time.

People who have a provider order for a pre-surgical COVID test will be directed into a fast-track line, Mozes said. Still, because of the large number of vehicles that go through the site, she recommended that people come prepared, with a full tank of gas, water and some snacks. Portable toilets are available at the test site.

Ross said the Lovelace site is open each Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 a.m. to noon. As at other testing sites in the state, anyone can be tested and there is no upfront cost, whether or not they have insurance or symptoms.

“I think the citizens of this state are seeing what’s going on in Arizona and Texas, and since we slowly started reopening, people are more cautious of what that means in terms of the spread of the virus,” resulting in more people seeking to be tested, Ross said.

TriCore, which analyzes the vast majority of samples from test sites around the state, including Balloon Fiesta Park, Lovelace and UNMH, updates its data every hour to the DOH, said Robin Divine, chief business development officer.

TriCore has 17 patient care centers in the Albuquerque area and 32 throughout New Mexico. From June 4 through July 7, the number of samples it has processed increased by 77%, she said.

While none of the operators of the test sites said they are currently experiencing shortages of testing supplies, Divine acknowledged that “during this entire event, we have had bouts of supply shortages,” which might include collection kit supplies, nasal swabs or “reagent” supplies that are used in processing the specimens. She noted the shortages are not just in New Mexico, but also occur nationally.

“It’s an ongoing challenge. Supplies come from vendors, but we also work collaboratively with the state lab division at DOH and we have shared supplies with each other, trying to keep the testing going on throughout New Mexico.”

TriCore does not process samples collected at the 10 CVS Pharmacy drive-through test sites in New Mexico, six of them in Albuquerque. Those samples are sent to “offsite independent third-party labs who are responsible for processing and delivering the results, which we then communicate to patients,” said company spokeswoman Monica Prinzing.

The increased demand for testing has caused backlogs for CVS’s lab partners “and is delaying their processing of patient samples,” so it can take up to seven days for people to receive their results, Prinzing said.

Staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this story.

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