St. Luke's Coronavirus Testing Station

St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum closed its coronavirus testing tent last week.

As Idaho prepares for the third phase of its staged reopening plan, state officials announced Friday that they’re looking to expand the state’s COVID-19 testing capabilities.

New recommendations from Idaho’s Testing Task Force, published in a report last week, include testing a greater number and wider range of people, including both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. The recommendations also include limited use of antibody tests for now, as the presence of antibodies does not guarantee that the patient cannot be reinfected.

“A strong economic rebound can only occur with a combination of efforts, and expanded and targeted testing is a big part of our strategy,” Little said in a press conference Friday. “Testing capacity is starting to significantly expand in Idaho and elsewhere.”

Idaho currently has the capacity to test between 18,000 and 23,000 people per week, according to the report. Ideally, the task force wrote, those testing capabilities would be expanded to about 163,200 tests per week.

“Testing availability in Idaho has been inadequate to meet our collective needs,” the report states. “Although some healthcare providers have begun to secure adequate testing for their own populations, the availability and access to testing must be significantly increased to support a well-designed reopening of the state.”

The task force’s recommendations include prioritizing groups of people for molecular testing on a scale of 1 to 5, with those in Level 1 as the highest priority. People in Level 1 include symptomatic health care workers, symptomatic staff and residents of residential care facilities and prisons, symptomatic essential workers and those who have symptoms and are older than 65 or have underlying health conditions. The first priority level also includes some asymptomatic groups, such as hospital patients, new residents and staff at long-term care facilities and prisons, and asymptomatic contacts of confirmed patients. Testing all those who fall into the first group would require the state to perform about 16,900 tests a week, according to the report.

The second priority group—which would require about 26,000 tests per week—includes symptomatic people in “frequent and close contact” with international travelers or large numbers of the general public, as well as asymptomatic residents and staff in congregate living facilities and asymptomatic essential workers in congregate settings, such as workers at a meatpacking plant.

The third priority group includes all symptomatic workers and members of the public, as well as asymptomatic health care workers and asymptomatic essential workers in public-facing jobs, such as grocery store employees. The report estimates that the state would need to perform about 43,000 tests per week to test all Idahoans in that category.

The fourth and fifth priority groups—which would require about 65,000 tests per week combined—are made up entirely of asymptomatic individuals, including teachers in large classrooms, restaurant workers, students living in dormitories, athletes and attendees at sporting events, and travelers returning from areas of community transmission by way of shared transportation.

How exactly the state will ramp up its testing efforts—and how much it will cost—was not discussed at length at the press conference Friday. The federal government has sent Idaho 40,000 testing swabs for the month of May, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator of public health for the state Department of Health and Welfare, and the state expects more swabs to arrive next month.

“Once we identify the ‘what’ in terms of testing, this work must pivot to the ‘how,’ which should include public-private partnerships to effectively meet the needs,” the report states.

Idaho has the lowest per-capita testing rate in the country, according to a recent ranking by the Kaiser Family Foundation. State officials at Friday’s press conference attributed the low rate to shrinking demand for testes as the state’s curve appeared to flatten, as well as the fact that to date Idaho has only reported its molecular test results. Some other states have reported both molecular and antibody tests, they said.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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