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Supply shortage restricts access to COVID-19 tests

Medical staff perform screenings at a drive-up coronavirus testing center at Lovelace Hospital in Downtown Albuquerque on April 19. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It’s now harder for people to get tested for the coronavirus in Albuquerque. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

The University of New Mexico, Presbyterian and Lovelace health systems had been offering drive-up or walk-in coronavirus testing for people with or without symptoms. But they halted testing of asymptomatic people for COVID-19 on Wednesday because of an unexpected supply shortage.

“This is not a short-lived problem,” a spokeswoman for TriCore Reference Laboratories, which processes COVID-19 tests for the three hospitals, said in a statement.

At issue is the recent increase in demand for reagents, which are needed to process COVID-19 tests, said Beth Bailey, the TriCore spokeswoman.

“In discussions with our reagent vendors, this national shortage will likely continue into the next several months due to increased testing demand across the country,” she said.

UNM, Presbyterian and Lovelace announced the change in testing in a joint statement. For now, the change will primarily affect people seeking tests in Albuquerque, although Presbyterian also takes samples from patients outside the city, said Melanie Mozes, a spokeswoman for Presbyterian.

The hospitals said the change in practice won’t affect testing for patients who have COVID-19 symptoms, inpatient testing or testing required before a medical procedure. Symptoms of the virus include fever and chills, coughing, loss of smell or taste, difficulty breathing, fatigue and headaches.

Presbyterian operates the massive drive-up site at Balloon Fiesta Park, and Lovelace operates a large one east of Downtown.

Presbyterian will continue to test people without symptoms who have had a known exposure to a COVID-19 infection.

David Morgan, a spokesman for the Department of Health, acknowledged that the state is changing its message to the public – now emphasizing that people with symptoms, those with a known exposure to the virus and those who live or work in high-risk places get tested. It previously encouraged everyone to be tested.

“Everything said locally, nationally and beyond about how people can be asymptomatic and can unknowingly pass the virus to others hasn’t changed,” he said, adding that people should follow public health orders. The current order mandates masks in public places, limits gatherings and encourages staying at home as much as possible.

Labs throughout the country are reporting trouble processing test results amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. TriCore, like all other labs processing COVID tests, gets an allotment of reagents each week, which limit how many tests it can perform, Bailey said.

When positive tests increase, as they have in New Mexico in recent weeks, the demand for testing due to contract tracing can grow dramatically, she said.

“Stewardship of our limited testing resources is critical in order to best serve the health of our community,” she said. “TriCore is working with the health systems throughout New Mexico to strategically prioritize current testing, ensuring clinically actionable turnaround times for the highest-risk patients.”

It wasn’t clear what the announcement could mean for the state’s overall testing capacity. Since the start of the pandemic, New Mexico has processed nearly 490,000 tests – more than Colorado, Utah or Nevada, which have larger populations, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Presbyterian, Lovelace and UNM have collected a large share of the samples that have been tested for coronavirus in New Mexico, especially in the Albuquerque area. Mozes estimated that the Presbyterian health system alone has collected about 25% to 30% of the specimens statewide that have been tested for the virus.

The three hospitals referred asymptomatic people seeking a test, including those needing clearance for their employer, to the Department of Health to find an alternative testing site.

Morgan said state public health offices haven’t been affected by the supply shortage.

“We at the Department of Health will do our best to adjust our availability at our public health offices,” he said in an email. “Our Scientific Lab Division is not currently experiencing the shortage of testing reagent the facilities report, but we are limited in our capacity to process specimens. We will do all we can to serve the public and manage the lab’s already 24-hour processing schedule.”

Morgan said the DOH uses a different instrument for COVID-19 tests, so it is not directly affected by the same supply shortage.

Testing for the virus can help slow its spread, according to health officials. One reason is that people can carry coronavirus while showing mild or no symptoms, studies have suggested.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration had expanded its criteria for who can be tested for COVID-19 in recent months, describing testing as key to the state’s ability to gradually reopen its economy. As of this week, the state’s seven-day rolling average of coronavirus tests administered statewide had increased to more than 7,300 – well above the goal of 5,000 tests per day established by the Lujan Grisham administration as one of its criteria for reopening businesses.

Even with the expanded capacity, the state has struggled to keep up with the demand for testing amid a recent uptick in coronavirus cases. Some New Mexicans have reported waiting for up to six hours at drive-up testing sites or being turned away due to limited testing supplies.

Mozes said Presbyterian’s testing sites, including its drive-up site at Balloon Fiesta Park, will screen people for symptoms of the virus. But she encouraged patients to go to Presbyterian’s website to see if they will qualify for a test before arriving.

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