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When testing goes wrong …

RE: editorial: “As NM masks up, the state needs to speed up contact tracing,” July 29.

Michael M. Kiley is a retired manager at the National Jewish Health Minimally Invasive Diagnostic Center, Denver.

As someone educated in public health and public administration, and who served as a department manager at three of the largest Denver hospitals … for two years, while retired I have driven 500 miles a day and picked up lab tests including COVID-19 from hospitals in the distant corners of the state, in what is basically a volunteer role.

… I have been troubled for months about one aspect of the governor’s otherwise stellar COVID-19 performance: Public silence concerning contact tracing performance. Gov. (Michelle) Lujan Grisham has been solid and targeted and has made New Mexico among the safest of U.S. states.

The single exception highlighted in the ABQ Journal editorial is contact tracing. As the editorial well shows, by the metric of days from test to contacts traced, tracing days have steeply increased.

What is going wrong? The objective of tracing is to eliminate or reduce additional exposures to the person who is positive from social contact, so as to deflate the geometric expansion of communicable disease spread. Hence, (it is) absolutely essential to break the pandemic. But tracing is way, way behind testing and new positives.

First … part of what is going wrong is the departure of key state health officials including the heads of the Health Department and the Epidemiology Division. This alone is a critical problem. But it is a compound problem: Why are key people leaving at a critical time?

What is going on at the senior department levels? It should not be fear of getting sick, (as) those of us making paltry wages to handle the actual COVID-19 (testing) tubes have continued our work undaunted and with strict protective measures. The top dogs should certainly not have run away just to avoid exposure and sickness. What is it? Who is thwarting these professionals badly enough for them to quit at the peak of the battle?

Second, what is going on with the contractor, working for a “mere” $12.5 million? What has kept it from effective recruitment along the predictable positive test curve so as to keep performance at an acceptable number of days out? Should we keep them? Can we not change horses in mid-stream or can they? We better investigate and decide fast. …

And third, action. It is past time to act decisively. We need a proven manager to fix this. We need to ramp up steeply recruitment and training of tracers, both phone and field. I strongly appeal to New Mexico physicians and public health professors and practitioners to step up, even if temporarily, to offer their knowledge, experience and vision.

And I recommend hiring a police detective to focus the field tracers, as someone used to focusing on and finding people, and laying down the law for quarantine. This is a make-or-break challenge to all residents of New Mexico. Either the virus wins or we do.

I work daily in the process of test submission to TriCore, the central lab, and I do not see test processing as a cause of delay. There will always be outlier exceptions such as the 13-day turnaround cited in the editorial. Our central lab state system has been credited with speeding the testing process. As I see the flow, COVID-10 tests get to the lab the same day the patient is tested, and automated test analysis is multiple thousands per day. However, my scope is not panoramic.

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