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Many ABQ testing sites full as cases increase

The New Mexico National Guard is helping health care workers administer COVID-19 tests at Expo New Mexico in Albuquerque. (Courtesy of New Mexico National Guard)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

With the incidence of COVID-19 exploding in New Mexico, getting a test for the virus, even for those with symptoms, is difficult in the state’s biggest metro area.

On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, New Mexico dramatically broke its daily record of new COVID-19 infections, reporting 37% more new cases than on any other day of the pandemic.

The New Mexico National Guard is helping health care workers administer COVID-19 tests at Expo New Mexico in Albuquerque. (Courtesy of New Mexico National Guard)

Along with the 2,897 new cases reported on Wednesday, the 26 additional COVID-19 deaths reported made it the deadliest seven-day stretch since New Mexico’s first virus infections surfaced in March.

The number of cases in Bernalillo County jumped by more than 300 cases in one day, from 615 Tuesday to 993. Sandoval County experienced a jump from 117 to 179 in a single day. The total number of cases reported to date statewide was 70,451.

And the strain on coronavirus testing sites was evident.

By noon Wednesday, no testing facility in Albuquerque or Rio Rancho recommended by the state Department of Health was accepting patients for same-day testing. The earliest available appointment time was Friday.

“Supplies are fine,” said Jodi McGinnis Porter of the state Human Services Department. “We are seeing a testing capacity challenge. People are trying to register for a test at multiple sites, and they are full.” She said the state is expanding testing times because the demand for tests has “gone up dramatically during the surge in COVID-19 cases.”

The sharp increase in daily counts spurred the state Wednesday afternoon to send out a cellphone alert warning, “Shelter in place except for emergency needs. EXTREME virus risk.”

As the state urged residents to stay at home if possible, hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients soared to 776, a 5% increase since Monday. The death toll statewide hit 1,290. The 26 people whose deaths were reported Wednesday ranged in age from their 40s to their 90s.

Short hours

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health’s testing site, at Expo New Mexico, was open for two hours Wednesday before shutting down at noon. The New Mexico National Guard has been helping the DOH with that testing, which requires pre-registration online.

McGinnis Porter said the testing site is only open two hours at a time because staff is also helping other critical medical programs, like flu shot clinics.

In Rio Rancho, the state Department of Health website listed two Presbyterian Medical Services testing locations. But a receptionist who answered the phone said the next available testing appointment at either site was on Dec. 2.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said one Albuquerque resident who spent six days trying to get a test. “You think you have so many options, and when you finally think you have a place, they say, ‘Oh we’re full,’ or, ‘we don’t take your insurance.’ ” After waiting nearly two hours in the car and being tested Monday at a Lovelace Health Systems drive-thru site, her test came back positive Wednesday.

Lovelace offers testing without an appointment three days a week and will be testing again Friday.

“Currently, we are administering an increasing number of COVID-19 tests at our drive-thru testing location at Martin Luther King and Walter Streets (in Albuquerque),” said Whitney Marquez, spokeswoman for Lovelace Health System. That testing site is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

“Our primary focus is testing those with symptoms or who have been exposed to COVID-19,” Marquez said. She said 304 tests were conducted Wednesday in the span of three hours.

The Presbyterian Healthcare Services drive-thru testing site, near McLeod and San Mateo, required pre-registration online Wednesday.

But on completion of the online form, the website said, “We are sorry, but there are no appointments available at this time. Please check back periodically for availability.”

Melanie Mozes, of Presbyterian, told the Journal, “We are evaluating process improvements and additional staffing to increase our testing capacity to meet the community’s current demand.” She said Presbyterian will also soon be offering a new antigen testing option, BinaxNOW, which will allow for immediate results on site and reduce testing volumes for its lab partners.

On Wednesday, Presbyterian warned on its MyChart app that “your COVID-19 test may take up to five days to show in MyChart due to the high test volume.” It tells people to remain in isolation while they wait for their results.

Mozes also suggested that for “community members who are struggling to get testing,” there are mail-from-home kits for COVID-19 tests through LabCorp.

In the South Valley, Casa de Salud clinic’s once-a-week drive- thru testing lasted an hour, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.

At Pathology Consultants of New Mexico, also listed on the DOH website under testing sites in Albuquerque, a prerecorded phone message said only that tests will be available in Roswell and Las Cruces.

UNM Hospital provides testing for those with virus symptoms at its main hospital “as part of our emergency department,” said Mark Rudi, spokesman for UNM Health Sciences.

Giving up

Tom Garcia, of San Ildefonso Pueblo, told the Journal he believes he has the virus but has given up finding a place to be tested.

He said he first phoned the Indian Health Service’s COVID-19 hotline and hasn’t heard back.

Then he contacted the office of a private physician and made an appointment for Wednesday, but it was canceled. He was told to fill out paperwork online first, but the information didn’t go through.

“I still haven’t seen a doctor,” Garcia said. “I know I’ve been exposed because my co-worker came out positive, and there’s only two of us in the office. And I have a cough.’

Now Garcia said he’s given up trying to get an appointment for a test, adding, “The frustration is not worth my time.”

Those who think they have the virus and are waiting to get tested should stay home in insolation, the DOH advises.

The New Mexico Department of Health has 106 test sites open in 28 counties. The public can pre-register online for COVID-19 testing at www.cvtestreg.nmhealth.org.

As for private labs, Southwest Labs locations were offering a rapid test for $79 without a wait, but the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which state health officials say is considered more reliable, wasn’t available until Nov. 30, a receptionist said.

The Department of Health, on its website, states it strongly encourages the following groups to get tested:

⋄ People with the COVID-19 symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, and/or loss of taste or smell.

⋄ Asymptomatic people who are close contacts or household members of people in their infectious period who have already tested positive for the coronavirus.

⋄ Asymptomatic people who live or work in congregate settings such as long-term care facilities and group homes.

⋄ Patients who are scheduled for surgery and whose provider has advised them to get tested before the procedure.

The DOH told the Journal those who test positive should isolate. Instructions are available at https://cv.nmhealth.org/how-to-isolate-when-positive

Earlier this month, New Mexico health officials partnered with the federal government to expand COVID-19 testing across the southern part of the state.

The Health Department began opening 12 new testing sites in areas where positivity rates have skyrocketed. That includes Las Cruces, Clovis, Hobbs, Carlsbad, Portales and several other locations.

On Wednesday, a relatively high percentage (15.9%) of COVID-19 tests were positive, which indicates that testing in New Mexico is limited and that most cases may go undetected. At these levels, it is hard to know how fast COVID-19 is actually spreading, according to the website for COVID ActNow (www.covidactnow.org). Covid ActNow is a volunteer-driven nonprofit built by a multidisciplinary team of technologists, epidemiologists, public health experts and public policy leaders.

The Governor’s Office this week stated that the risk of transmission “has never been higher than right now. And the risk of serious illness – and death – is exacerbated by the unsustainable strain on the state’s hospital system and health care providers.”

Governor’s plea

“New Mexicans must stay at home to stop the spread and prevent needless mass casualties all throughout our state,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “This is real. This is not up for debate. We cannot stop the infections that have already happened and are still circulating throughout our state. We cannot reverse the thousands of significant illnesses and hundreds of deaths that have occurred. But we can still prevent worse. And we must. What we do now will determine who lives and dies this winter. Act right. And take COVID-19 seriously.”

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