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Pooling, rapid tests expected to aid NM’s testing capacity

The city of Santa Fe has placed signs in English and Spanish in some city parks, urging people to download the NOVID app. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico plans to boost its coronavirus testing capacity by pooling some samples together and rolling out rapid tests in the coming weeks.

The pooling procedure – already underway on a limited basis – should allow laboratories in the state to test more samples each day and return results faster to patients. Results will continue to be reported individually, just as they are now.

“We are excited we can begin to do this in appropriate areas across the state,” said Karissa Culbreath, medical director and infectious disease chief at TriCore Reference Laboratories in Albuquerque.

The rapid virus tests, meanwhile, are expected to be available for patients who have just come down with symptoms, not for surveillance testing, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said. They might be particularly helpful for boosting testing capacity in rural areas, he said, and hospital systems could set up drive-thru sites to conduct rapid testing.

The extra capacity comes as New Mexico’s positivity rate climbs to its highest levels since April, the first full month after the pandemic arrived in the state.

The share of tests that come back positive hit 7.1% in the most recent seven-day period, more than double the average at the beginning of October.

New Mexico is already ramping up its testing capacity. The number of daily tests reached an average of 8,400 this week, a 41% increase since Oct. 1.

But pooling, Culbreath said, has the chance to boost New Mexico’s testing capacity even further, perhaps by an extra 400 tests a day.

The process can only be handled at properly certified laboratories, but TriCore has started doing it on a limited basis, with plans to expand. Pooling is a recommendation of the White House coronavirus task force.

At least some states have been doing it since the spring.

For pooling, Culbreath said, multiple samples are mixed together and tested. If no virus is detected, everyone gets negative results.

If the virus is present, then the individual samples are tested to determine which person has COVID-19. Only the person who provided the positive sample – not everyone in the initial pool – gets reported as positive.

Culbreath said the procedure is largely automated to limit the potential for human error.

But it’s most effective in populations with low positivity rates. With too many positives, the process is less helpful.

Scrase said pooling could be particularly useful for testing of nursing home residents – a population tested often because of the high risk but with low positivity rates.

“There’s great potential here,” Scrase said.

Test verification

Rapid testing may arrive soon, too, perhaps in the next few weeks. It can provide results within 15 minutes.

New Mexico expects to receive about 630,000 rapid antigen tests this year from Abbott Laboratories as part of federal effort to expand testing. The state, Scrase said, has already received some of the tests and is verifying their accuracy by comparing them to the results of more-established tests.

The only approved therapeutic use for the rapid antigen tests, he said, is for testing within the first five to seven days of the onset of symptoms.

In other words, they aren’t appropriate for testing someone without symptoms to determine whether it’s safe to, say, return to school or participate in sports.

Even without the rapid tests or widespread pooling in place already, Scrase said, he encourages people to seek out tests if they have any concern about exposure to the virus.

Patients with symptoms are encouraged to seek testing through their regular health care system, while state public health offices focus more on people without symptoms.

The Department of Health encourages testing for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms or people who are close contacts of others who have tested positive, people who work in high-risk group settings, or patients scheduled for surgery.

But “anybody who wants to get tested should get tested,” Scrase said.

Serious situation

New Mexico reported 669 new coronavirus cases Thursday and three more deaths, pushing the statewide death toll to 953 people.

The number of patients in New Mexico hospitals continued to climb, reaching 213 hospitalizations, a 42% increase over the last week.

“We are in a serious, serious situation here in New Mexico,” Scrase said.

The new data had at least one bit of good news: The state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases remained the same – at 632 a day, the first day this month without an increase over the previous day.

The new deaths reported Thursday included a man in his 30s from Doña Ana County, a man in his 70s from Bernalillo County and a woman in her 70s from Eddy County. All had an underlying medical problem of some kind.

A forecast by Los Alamos National Laboratory projects New Mexico to reach 1,000 deaths within two weeks under its “middle-case” scenario.

The state Environment Department also announced that 71 businesses and employers are on a new watchlist for having at least two separate cases of COVID-19 in the workplace – including six Walmart Supercenters and sheriff’s offices in Eddy and Sandoval counties.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell is under quarantine after reporting 63 employees and cadets tested positive for the coronavirus and were isolating.


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