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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Idaho Struggles With Coronavirus Testing Capacity, Reserves Tests For The Sick


As coronavirus cases reach record highs in Idaho, testing centers, as in other states, are seeing a surge in demand. Wait times to get tested are increasing and tests sent to out-of-state labs are coming back upwards of four days later, rendering them ineffective in monitoring positive cases.


Idaho’s weekly test numbers have increased since the beginning of the pandemic, when about 5,000 tests were conducted a week, to June, when there was an average of 13,000 tests conducted each week. 

At the same time, the percent of positive tests coming back has increased significantly -- from 3% at the beginning of June to 11% at the beginning of July. That’s a sign that there’s not enough testing to keep up with the spread of the virus. It also means tests are going to symptomatic people, versus being used as a disease surveillance tool. 

Credit Screenshot by Boise State Public Radio on July 9
A chart on coronavirus.idaho.gov shows an increasing number of tests conducted in the month of June, as well as a climbing percent positive rate.

“Our whole entire test system is overwhelmed at this point,” said Odette Bolano, the CEO of the Saint Alphonsus Health System, during a Central District Health Board of Health meeting this week. 

Saint Alphonsus sent out a notice this week that it’s beginning to prioritize tests based on “greatest medical needs and severity of symptoms,” and asked those with mild or no symptoms to stay at home. 

The same is true at St. Luke’s -- Idaho’s largest health system. Asymptomatic people are only being tested there if they have medical procedures that require screening, or if a hospital patient is being discharged to a long-term care facility

Due to limited testing capacity and supplies, the health system said, it’s unable to provide testing for asymptomatic people who need a negative test to return to work or for travel purposes.

Such policies are affecting institutions like Boise State University, which initially instructed all faculty and students returning to campus to get tested. But earlier this week, citing strained local health systems, the university temporarily narrowed that requirement to individuals who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, and to those with symptoms. 


Testing Task Force

In May, when Idaho’s testing task force released its recommendations to test certain priority groups, totaling up to 150,000 tests per week, it didn’t release guidance or information on how the state would drastically increase its testing capacity, leading some providers to question where all the additional tests were going to come from

More than a month later, Dr. Jim Souza, the medical director at St. Luke’s who also co-chairs the testing task force, said capacity hasn’t greatly improved. 

“Our state’s testing capacity, really, has not substantially changed since the testing task force completed its ‘what’ recommendations, back circa the first week of May,” Souza said.

In Idaho, people get tested for coronavirus at hospitals, doctors’ offices and pharmacies. During the Central District Health Meeting this week, Souza indicated that, going forward, testing should be allocated “centrally.”

“We’re not consuming those resources in a way that’s logical and consistent with a scarcity situation, and delivering the testing to the people who need it the most,” he said. 

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has hired Brock Anderson in a temporary role, starting next week, to coordinate testing in the state and to operationalize the testing task force’s recommendations. 

State Laboratory

In late June, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare sent a notice to long-term care centers saying it could not meet all of their testing needs. Specifically, the state lab is no longer accepting repeat tests of asymptomatic staff and residents, or surveillance testing of asymptomatic staff and residents in facilities without known cases of COVID-19. 

“We understand the capacity issues at the IBL, but it is easy to see that testing in long-term care is no longer a priority. We need to increase testing in long-term facilities, not limit the testing,” said Robert Vande Merwe, the director of the Idaho Health Care Association.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said, like most other states, Idaho continues to have challenges with securing enough testing supplies. Right now, the lab can process around 200 tests per day. That’s likely to triple as early as next week due to new “instrumentation,” according to the health department.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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