Idaho View: Idaho, U.S. are way behind in coronavirus testing. Why not increase capacity immediately?

Idaho View: Idaho, U.S. are way behind in coronavirus testing. Why not increase capacity immediately?

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Testing for coronavirus should be the highest priority for our public health officials right now.

In Idaho, we have a local lab in Garden City that could be processing as many as 400 tests per day.

But, according to Idaho Statesman reporter Audrey Dutton, the machine at Cole Diagnostics’ lab is sitting idle.

That’s because the company that provides Cole Diagnostics with the software and reagents necessary to test for coronavirus had to prioritize larger, regional labs in the face of heightened demand.

“Because the demand for COVID-19 testing is much greater than supply, we worked with government agencies to develop an allocation strategy for our (novel coronavirus test) and instruments that prioritizes labs with the broadest geographic reach and highest patient impact,” spokesman Mike Weist said in an email to the Statesman.

That means tests being done in Idaho are being sent out of state to those regional labs, leading to delays of 10 or more days. We have heard anecdotally of people waiting more than 14 days for test results. The delay in testing is happening even to health care workers, which could lead to the spread of the disease even faster.

State health officials should be demanding that federal officials get resources and employees to these smaller labs to get them up and running immediately.

U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson should work closely with Gov. Brad Little to make sure Idaho has what we need to get every possible testing site operating.

As of now, Idaho is ahead of the national average when it comes to testing per capita, but we need to do even better.

As of Wednesday, Idaho’s testing was at a rate of 4,211 per 1 million people, according to the website, a page that provides officially reported data from each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The national rate is about 3,200 tests per 1 million people. The highest rate is in Washington state, at 9,735 people tested per 1 million population.

The lowest rates are in Oklahoma and Mississippi, places that health officials are now saying are at high risk of outbreaks because of such low testing rates.

The ability to test people for the coronavirus is emerging as one of the great lessons for stemming the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Based on experiences in countries like Germany, Singapore and South Korea, what’s becoming clear is that testing quickly and massively has reduced the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Even though South Korea and the United States had their first cases of coronavirus at around the same time, Jan. 21 and Jan. 20, South Korea’s testing rate was about 800 times higher than the U.S. rate by mid-March, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Within a week of its first case of coronavirus, South Korean government officials met with representatives from several medical companies to urge them to begin developing coronavirus test kits for mass production, according to The New York Times.

Within two weeks, thousands of test kits were shipping daily, and the country now produces 100,000 kits per day, has opened 600 testing centers, including 50 drive-thru sites, and has conducted more than 300,000 tests, according to The Times. That’s a rate of about 5,828 per 1 million population. Only 11 states have a higher testing rate than that.

It’s clear we can and should be doing more, and Cole Diagnostics is but one example of where Idaho has fallen down. The glass-half-full analysis, though, suggests that we have a tremendous opportunity to increase testing capacity and hopefully flatten the curve of this outbreak.

If we really want to do that, and get people back to work so our economy can rebound as quickly as possible, increasing our testing must be our key focus right now.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board.



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A small outbreak of coronavirus at a Fry Foods plant in Weiser gives a prime example of the importance of testing for COVID-19. More than that, it represents a warning shot across the bow of potential pitfalls if we don’t reopen our economy the right way.

As we tiptoe through Stage 2 of Gov. Brad Little’s phased reopening plan and approach a more robust Stage 3, it’s going to become even more important that we take the necessary steps to prevent future outbreaks.

And there will be future outbreaks.

The fact remains that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still out there. It’s ready to strike again, and without a vaccine, it remains a potentially destructive and fatal disease.

Aggressive and quick testing remains one of the key elements — perhaps the most important element — of controlling outbreaks at this point.

Fry Foods offers an early case study.

The Weiser food processing plant employs 260 people to make onion rings and other food products. It shut down earlier this month when at least seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fry Foods initially didn’t test all 260 employees at the Weiser facility — only the 50 or 60 who likely came in contact with the employees who tested positive. Other employees were able to get tested on their own.

The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories (state run-laboratories) tested all that they had the capacity to do in one day, according to Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state lab can do about has a testing capacity of approximately 200 tests per day.

“We are not prepared to handle this,” Doug Wold, human resources manager for Fry Foods, told the Idaho Statesman, referring to the lack of coordinated response. “If you don’t have an employer who’s willing to be proactive, we’re just going to fail.”

Fortunately, Crush the Curve Idaho, a private, business-led initiative established during the outbreak to increase testing, stepped in and tested every employee at Fry Foods.

By Tuesday of this week, 20 employees — about 8% of the plant’s workforce — had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least two of their family members. Nearly all were asymptomatic.


That’s what needs to happen: rapid-response testing. If you have an outbreak at your workplace, get everyone tested. For those who test positive, keep them home and isolated. For those who test negative, they can keep on working and you’re back in business.

When the outbreak hit Fry Foods, company officials made the decision to shut the plant down.

Without adequate testing, that’s unfortunately the right thing to do. Without testing, you have no idea whether you have seven infected employees, 70 or 270.

We applaud Fry Foods company officials for making the tough call to shut down, even though they were given the green light by the Southwest District Health Department to resume operations.

Coronavirus is stealthy. A person can carry coronavirus longer without symptoms, potentially spreading to others unwittingly. Some people who carry coronavirus have no symptoms at all.

We are encouraged that Crush the Curve Idaho stepped up and stepped in here.

But Idaho needs a more concerted and organized plan to do rapid-response testing.

We are a fragmented health system. Health providers include Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s, Primary Health, Saltzer, among others. Then think about all the entities who pay for health care: Blue Cross of Idaho, Regence BlueShield, PacificSource, SelectHealth, etc. Throw in Medicare, Medicaid and those who are uninsured.

Even our own government health management system is fragmented, with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and seven independent health districts not operated by the state.

And, in the case of Fry Foods, situated in a city bordering Oregon, workers were from two states.


No wonder Fry Foods officials were at a loss for where to turn for help. Without some sort of coordinated effort to test all employees and somehow pay for those tests, shutting down the plant was the best option.

It’s worth noting that the Fry Foods employee who initially had coronavirus was at a family gathering of a larger number than outlined in the governor’s reopening plan and was with visitors from out of state, two violations of the governor’s guidelines. That’s why we have the guidelines, and that’s why it’s important to follow the guidelines. Otherwise, this is what you get: an outbreak that shuts down an entire food manufacturing plant.

Unfortunately, shutting down operations every time there’s an outbreak is not going to get the job done.

And there will be more outbreaks as we reopen our economy, reopen factories and workplaces.

Idaho has a lot to be optimistic about, and we have a golden opportunity to lead the nation in reopening our economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We have had relatively few cases (around 2,300) and few deaths (77). Our early efforts to shut down parts of our social interactions and Little’s quick call to issue a statewide stay-home order clearly have paid off. Idahoans’ adherence to the stay-home order has helped to flatten the curve and control the number of new cases. Residents and businesses, alike, have done their part to make this happen.

Our hope is that Idaho can chug along through the stages of reopening. Our fear is that if we don’t do this the right way, we’ll have a surge and we’ll be back to a statewide stay-home order. Nobody wants that.

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