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Bad news is no good news for speedy COVID-19 testing

Medical staff perform COVID-19 testing at the drive-through site at Lovelace Hospital on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue on Tuesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis)

For people who have experienced the long wait times to get screened for COVID-19, or have been turned away after waiting for hours because the site was closing for the day or had reached capacity, the bad news is that there is no good news.

It’s simply a matter of finite resources being pitted against sudden enormous demand for the test, according to health care officials.

In addition, the state Department of Health is still recommending that everyone get tested.

And while some places across the country are starting to experience a testing supply shortage, which could certainly impact a person’s ability to get tested, that is not currently the situation in New Mexico, DOH spokesman David Morgan said Thursday.

“There is enough testing supplies and personal protective equipment to go around. We continue to order and receive medical supplies as needed and are vigilant in doing our part to assure the supply chain remains stable in New Mexico,” he said.

New Mexico has seen a spike in virus infections in recent weeks, though not nearly as dramatic as the surge in neighboring Arizona and Texas. Those mounting infections have led to increased public demand for testing statewide, he said.

“The Department of Health recommends that everyone be tested, whether they are showing symptoms or not, because we recognize that there are lots of people who test positive who are asymptomatic and unknowingly can transmit the virus to someone who could suffer severe symptoms,” particularly people whose health is already compromised, Morgan said.

In recent days, people have reported waiting five and six hours to get tested at some sites; many reported that after waiting hours they were turned away when the sites closed or had reached capacity. Motorists regularly form lines hours before the drive-through sites open.

Dr. David Scrase, Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Health and Human Services Department, said last week that one in six New Mexicans have been tested for COVID-19. On Thursday he said that will likely rise to one in five by next week.

The DOH has more than 70 testing sites in 27 counties, including 40 public health offices around the state. In addition to scheduled testing it also conducts rapid response testing. The department is “testing at capacity every day,” so rather than open more sites, it will look for ways to possibly make each site more efficient and thereby collect more samples, Morgan said.

Altogether, DOH sites are collecting about 2,500 samples daily, which are being sent to the state’s Scientific Laboratory Division in Albuquerque, he said.

The majority of people are going to testing sites managed by Presbyterian, Lovelace and other agencies and organizations. These samples are sent to TriCore Reference Laboratories to be processed.

Both the DOH and TriCore say that they are able to analyze and report test results within 48 hours.

What can speed up the process for people is if they go to the DOH online portal at cvtestreg.nmhealth.org and register for testing at DOH sites, Morgan said. The portal allows people to select a day, time and testing location, which helps them get fast-tracked for testing at the site and saves time because they will have already answered the series of mandatory questions. Further, the portal gives people an option to get their results quickly via email, text message or voicemail. They are also available online by logging into the DOH’s COVID-19 test results page at https://cvresults.nmhealth.org

Test results from TriCore are returned electronically to the ordering provider and hourly to the New Mexico Department of Health for their database, said TriCore spokeswoman Susan Hill. Additionally, individuals can get their results through the online DOH testing results page. TriCore also reports positive results to the provider, Department of Health, and, for hospitalized patients, to that hospital’s infection control department.

There is a longer lag time for results for people who get tested at any of the 10 CVS Pharmacy drive-through sites in New Mexico, six of which are in Albuquerque. Those samples are sent for analysis to labs outside of New Mexico, said company spokeswoman Monica Prinzing.

To set up a test people should register online through cvs.com. They are also instructed to set up a MyChart portal, where results will be shared with them. “We monitor to ensure they access their results. If they do not access their results within a certain period of time, a CVS Health professional will call them,” she said.

However, at least one CVS site closed early and canceled appointments two days this week, saying it was out of supplies.

Because of the increased demand for tests, results may take seven days or longer to be returned.

On Wednesday, the Balloon Fiesta Park testing site closed early so workers could reconfigure the layout, said Melanie Mozes, spokeswoman for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which manages the site.

The new layout is intended to allow a more efficient fast-track through the site for those motorists who have presurgical orders for COVID tests. It will not likely increase the overall volume of the site, where staffers are collecting more than 800 samples a day, which are sent to TriCore for analysis, Mozes said.

Earlier this week the Balloon Fiesta Park site shut the line down at 9:15 a.m., after vehicles got backed up to Alameda Boulevard.

The layout was also altered to provide better positioning against the sun and heat for the site workers, she said.

On Tuesday, workers at the Balloon Fiesta Park site conducted a survey of 741 motorists to find out why they were getting tested. About 40% of them believed they had symptoms of the virus; 30% said the test was ordered in advance of surgeries and other medical procedures; 10% said it was because they had traveled out of the state, “and the rest was a mixed bag,” said Mozes.

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