Editor's note: This post has been updated with new information following Gov. Little's press conference on the state's testing strategy.
In late April, a testing task force formed by Gov. Brad Little met for the first time.
“The staged reopening of our economy can only occur with a combination of efforts, and expanded and targeted testing is a big part of our strategy,” Little wrote in the press release, announcing the formation of the group.
The initial goals of the task force were to increase testing for symptomatic individuals; add screening and testing locations in all regions of the state that could serve older individuals, rural and lower income populations, and racial and ethnic minorities; and implement a testing program for at-risk healthcare workers.
Idaho is now in the second stage of its reopening plan; around 95% of businesses are allowed to be open. As of Friday, Idaho has tested the fewest residents per capita in the country, according to data from the COVID-19 Tracking Project. Yet, the task force did not release its strategy for how it plans to increase testing in the state until May 22, one month after the group formed.
The testing task force first evaluated the state’s testing capacity, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, IDHW’s administrator for public health. Currently, labs the state utilizes, both in Idaho and in other states, can run 7,500 tests per week and 23,000 tests per week at their maximum capacities. That is, if supply chains remain in tact and continue to improve. The IDHW state laboratory can run 200 tests per day.
Next, the task force started identifying “priority groups” to receive testing.
The first priority group includes high-risk, symptomatic individuals, such as those who are hospitalized, health care workers, first responders, people in long-term care facilities, individuals experiencing homelessness and critical infrastructure workers.
It also includes some asymptomatic people like patients going into surgeries that are aerosolized-generating procedures, and residents and staff who are coming in and out of congregate living facilities.
The second priority group includes symptomatic people who are in close contact with international travelers or large numbers of the general public, asymptomatic residents and staff in congregate living facilities, and people working in critical infrastructure like food processing facilities.
To test all people in the top two priority groups would require making around 43,000 tests available per week, according to Shaw-Tulloch. In the past month, Idaho has conducted around 4,000 tests each week.
A spokesperson for IDHW said more specifics on the priority testing groups would be posted to the governor’s coronavirus website when they are finalized.
The task force is still figuring out how to bridge the gap between the groups it thinks should be tested and the amount of tests the state has the ability to process.
In Lewiston, a long-term care facility had a known outbreak, and at the time, an IDHW spokesperson told Boise State Public Radio, there weren’t enough tests for all symptomatic individuals living there. Those people would now fall into the task force’s highest priority group.
Similarly, last week, a public health district identified a cluster of positive cases, which included employees at a Weiser food processing plant. Those workers would now be in the task force’s top two priority groups for testing, but many were denied tests by local providers until Crush the Curve came in to do mass testing, as the Idaho Statesman reported.
And while hospital officials report that demand for tests has decreased in some areas, some health districts are still testing at much lower rates than the rest of the state.
At the beginning of May, Idaho received 15 Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 machines from the Federal Emergency Management Association to increase the state’s testing capacity. One machine was sent to the Idaho Department of Correction and two machines were distributed to hospitals and providers in each public health district. However, Shaw-Tulloch said, some facilities that were given Abbott machines are still waiting on the cartridges needed to use them.
When asked how Idaho is planning on expanding its testing capacity, Gov. Little and IDHW officials have highlighted the fact that the state is receiving 40,000 testing kits from the federal government for the month of May, and is expecting another allotment for June. Along with the kits, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave the state $56 million this week to expand testing and contact tracing. That comes with a stipulation: Idaho must come up with a strategy for how it would test 2% of its population each month, which would mean roughly 8,900 Idahoans each week.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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