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Editorial: DOH must decide: Beef up testing or cut eligibility

DOH still recommends “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.”

– DOH spokesman David Morgan

Hundreds of people who waited in their vehicles for hours last week to get tested for COVID-19 at Balloon Fiesta Park and Lovelace Medical Center were turned away when the sites reached their daily capacities.

The drive-through clinics do not require pre-registration or health insurance and have been besieged with people heeding the state’s call to get tested, with lines forming hours before sites open and sites shutting down hours early because they hit capacity.

DOH spokesman David Morgan told Journal reporter Rick Nathanson last week the state still encourages everyone to be tested and there is no shortage of supplies. He acknowledged testing is “at capacity” – yet also said the state has no plans to open more sites.

How does this make any sense?

DOH has dozens of sites statewide, but only one in Bernalillo County – at Expo New Mexico. Instead, it relies on private providers like Presbyterian, Lovelace, CVS pharmacies and others to handle most testing.

The surge of New Mexicans wanting to be tested started about 10 days ago – and the long lines when the surge first appeared is understandable. But that was 10 days ago – and there do not appear to be any attempts to relieve the crush. On Monday the wait at Balloon Fiesta Park was seven hours – and that was for those who arrived before the 7 a.m. start. Who knows how many were turned away?

It’s time for DOH to either step up and increase the capacity of its sites – what about extending its testing site at Expo New Mexico to more than two hours a day, or opening up more than one site on the spacious grounds? – or walk back its position that everyone, regardless of symptoms, should get tested.

While state officials are at it, DOH should provide at least one site of its own for walk-ins. Almost all of the sites – managed by DOH and private providers – are drive-throughs, serving only those who have a vehicle (and hopefully air conditioning). What about folks without a car or hours and gas money to burn? The few walk-in clinics in Albuquerque typically require appointments that must be submitted online, cutting out those without internet access. And those sites screen to limit those who get tested.

Making matters worse, while some folks get their results in a day, there are reports of results taking up to two weeks, making contact tracing difficult if not impossible. One Journal reader tested at Walmart said his son waited nine days, he waited 11 for results. CVS, which last week canceled scheduled testing appointments in Albuquerque when supplies ran short, warns of results taking five to seven days.

It makes no sense to urge all to get a test while failing to provide a reasonable way to do so. While asymptomatic spread is a serious concern, if the state can’t deliver tests to all comers, it needs to consider scaling back to symptomatic and known-exposure cases.

There are New Mexicans for whom a test is crucial – if they are exhibiting symptoms, for example, or if they need a negative test to return to work or have a medical procedure done. They should not be forced to wait five, six or seven hours in line, or make an appointment at a CVS only to have it canceled because supplies ran out.

The governor has called the explosion of new cases “an untenable situation.” Also “untenable” is the current system for getting tested.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.