LINCOLN — A $27 million initiative to ramp up testing for COVID-19 in Nebraska is seeing its first glitches, though Gov. Pete Ricketts, who signed the contract, attributed it to startup problems.
“It’s a new process for us,” Ricketts said Thursday. “So I would ask people’s patience on this.”
Some Nebraskans, including the health director from hard-hit Grand Island, have said their test results hadn’t arrived within the 48-hour goal stated for TestNebraska.com by the governor.
And an Omaha doctor who sees COVID-19 patients was mistakenly turned down for a coronavirus test early this week, even though she met two of the criteria to be prioritized for the free tests — being a health care worker and coming in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
Delays in getting test results plagued the launch of an identical testing program called TestIowa, and questions have been raised about the medical expertise of the Utah tech companies behind the testing programs in Nebraska, Iowa and Utah. Initially, Nebraska’s online assessment included a question about hydroxychloroquine, a treatment touted by President Donald Trump but since largely discredited.
Ricketts signed a contract April 19 with the group led by Nomi Health of Orem, Utah, to provide 540,000 test kits as well as the high-tech equipment to analyze the samples. The governor said it was the quickest way to ramp up COVID-19 testing capacity in Nebraska, which, at the time, was less than 1,000 tests per day, and to obtain the reagents and other equipment that states have struggled to get.
TestNebraska is scheduled to ramp up to 3,000 tests a day.
In Nebraska, 1,268 people have been tested for COVID-19 in the first three days of TestNebraska sampling at drive-through sites in Omaha and Grand Island. Of those, 540 had received their results, Ricketts said Thursday afternoon.
He said the delays could be from those tested on the first day, adding that people may need to check their “junk” folders in their email to find their test results.
One of those who was waiting for test results was Teresa Anderson, who is on the front lines of a coronavirus hot spot in Grand Island as the head of the Central District Health Department. Anderson, who was tested Monday, said Thursday morning that there are “a lot of folks telling us they’re not getting their tests results.”
She said she was inquiring with the state, but she noted that “glitches with new rollouts” are common.
The Governor’s Office offered no specifics when asked why some test results had been held up. Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman, said that the 48-hour turnaround was never a promise but only “a goal” and that 80% of the tests in the first two days met that goal.
Ricketts on Thursday explained that a portion of the TestNebraska.com assessment that identifies health care workers as prioritized for testing hadn’t been turned on until Tuesday, thus the Omaha doctor, and other health care workers, who had filled out or updated their online assessments prior to that might have been turned down for testing.
TestNebraska has been taking online applications since April 21, and over the weekend asked those who had signed up to update their health information, including whether they were showing any coronavirus symptoms.
Dr. Sylvia Rael, an Omaha pulmonologist who does rounds at Methodist Hospital one week a month, told The World-Herald Wednesday that she was perplexed when she was rejected for a test, even though she is a health care worker and sees COVID-19 positive patients — two of the stated priorities for getting tested.
“It’s puzzling to me why I wouldn’t be first in line,” she said. “I’m not demanding. ... I just don’t understand.”
Gage, asked about the situation, responded Wednesday evening that the problem had been fixed and the doctor should try again.
Rael, on Thursday afternoon, said she did so, and the computer assessment informed her she had qualified for testing. But, when she went to schedule her test, all available times for testing had been taken.
“I’ll try again and see what my options are,” she said.
The doctor said she remained concerned about other health care workers who might have been rejected. Will emails from TestNebraska ask them to try again? How many might just give up because they were turned down? she asked.
Emails should be sent out to everyone, informing them of the problem, Rael said.
Through Wednesday, more than 129,000 Nebraskans had signed up for testing through TestNebraska. A third test site is scheduled to open Friday at the Lancaster Event Center on the northeast edge of Lincoln.
The governor has said the online assessment will help determine who should be tested first, with priority given to first responders and health care workers, those with serious COVID-19 symptoms, and those who have come in contact with someone who tested positive. Those without symptoms will be tested later, he said.
Rael said TestNebraska is a great idea — the state needs more widespread testing for the virus and needs to start testing people who are asymptomatic to determine how widespread the infection has become. She noted that if she had shown symptoms, she would have pursued testing already through a medical provider.
A spokeswoman for Methodist Hospital, Claudia Bohn, said the hospital is only testing employees who are symptomatic or who feel they have been exposed to the virus by a patient. She added that all employees are wearing masks and that employees are being screened for symptoms of the virus.
The doctor raised another concern that she’s heard from friends — that they’ve been discouraged from signing up for TestNebraska by employers, who warn workers that they will have to sit out from work if they get tested until their test results come back.
That, Rael said, could be an impediment for people to sign up.
Ricketts, when asked about that on Wednesday, said employers need to “do the right thing” and encourage employees to get tested. If they have symptoms or are sick, workers should be staying home anyway, he said, and if they have a suspicion that they were exposed to the virus, they should be tested so employers knows if an employee is infected.
World-Herald staff writers Martha Stoddard and Erin Duffy contributed to this report.
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