LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said he’s “very pleased” with the state’s $27 million COVID-19 testing program even though TestNebraska is falling far short of meeting a goal of providing an average of 500 tests per site per day.

On Tuesday, four mobile TestNebraska sites swabbed 1,197 coronavirus tests, which is about 300 tests per site, according to figures released by the governor.

The testing program, set up by a group of Utah high-tech firms, had set a goal of averaging 500 tests per site, and ramping up to 3,000 tests per day, at six mobile sites, by the end of May.

Ricketts on Wednesday indicated that the program may not reach that goal. He said part of the problem is that up to 15% of those scheduled for testing are not showing up, and because of that it’s hard to know how many tests to schedule per site.

“We want to see things go faster, but we are expanding our testing (overall),” Ricketts said. “Certainly, you can find things that need to be improved — that happens in any operation. I want to continue to push the team for 3,000 tests per day.”

When asked if not enough people were signing up for TestNebraska to fill all the available time slots, Ricketts said he did not immediately know the answer.

Some state senators have criticized the no-bid contracts with the Utah firms as hastily arranged and done without considering whether Nebraska firms and the University of Nebraska Medical Center — which has a nationally known center for dealing with contagious diseases — could do the testing, which is being paid for with federal taxpayer money.

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, in a letter to the governor Wednesday, asked why the state is still struggling to get adequate testing in “areas that need it the most,” such has hard-hit long-term care facilities and meatpacking plants.

“I recognize that TestNebraska was an opportunity to ramp up mass testing quickly, but it seems there is a disconnect between that testing program and the emergent needs in communities across the state,” Cavanaugh said.

Besides TestNebraska, the governor has been deploying the Nebraska National Guard to do testing at hot spots across the state, mainly in communities with meat processing plants. But a round of tests Sunday at a South Omaha health facility ended after only an hour when the test site ran out of its 300 test kits.

But Ricketts again on Wednesday defended TestNebraska, saying that when Nebraska signed its contract on April 19, the state was struggling, without luck, to obtain the equipment and supplies to do COVID-19 tests. The Utah firms, meanwhile, promised 540,000 test kits, as well as the high-tech equipment to analyze the results.

If you combine TestNebraska with testing done by private labs and the National Guard, COVID-19 testing increased to 22,200 last week, compared to 13,300 the week before that.

Workers from CHI Health facilities in Nebraska are administering the tests, which are analyzed at a lab set up at a CHI hospital in Lincoln. TestNebraska sites will be operating in Omaha and Lincoln at least through May 30, according to the program’s website, and other test sites will be set up later this week and next in Dakota City, Scottsbluff, Hastings, David City, York, Kearney, Seward and Beatrice.

On Wednesday morning, the online patient portal operated by TestNebraska malfunctioned, but the problem was fixed after an hour, according to a Ricketts spokesman. The program still lacks a way to sign up for testing via non-smartphone telephones. The governor has said that people without computers or a smartphone should ask a relative for help.

About 145,000 Nebraskans have registered so far for tests, which are free, via the TestNebraska.com website. The governor is using radio ads — paid for with federal emergency pandemic funds — his daily briefings and social media to urge more people to sign up. Having more people signed up will help determine whether hot spots are emerging, he said, and will help determine who should be isolated and who can return to a “more normal life.”

In other related news:

Mental health.

The governor signed a proclamation proclaiming May as Mental Health Awareness and Child Health Awareness Month.

The coronavirus pandemic, and the isolation and stress that it can cause, has increased calls to a family help line operated by the state (1-888-866-8660), and increased suicide attempts and suicides, according to Sheri Dawson of the Behavioral Health division of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Dawson said that people often don’t know what to say when talking to someone with mental health issues but that it’s important for people to reach out. Mental illness should be treated just like a physical illness, she said, because it, too, can be prevented and treated.

“Be the one,” Dawson said, to tell someone “I don’t know anything about depression, but what would be helpful to you?”

Sasse speech.

Ricketts said he felt that U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was just trying to be funny when he recently urged Fremont High graduates, during a commencement address via video, to not major in psychology.

Dawson said she didn’t hear what Sasse said but said psychologists, as well as other mental health providers, are very much needed in the state.

Ill inmates.

Three more inmates at the Community Corrections Center in Omaha tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the number of inmates testing positive there to seven. That is the only state prison facility where inmates have tested positive so far.

Ricketts, during his briefing Wednesday, rejected an idea floated by some advocates for inmates that all corrections staff at that facility be tested, so that any asymptomatic “spreaders” of the infection could be identified.

The governor said that such mass testing — which was done at a youth rehabilitation facility in Kearney after an outbreak there — would be impractical because it would only give officials an indication, at that moment, who was infected and who wasn’t.

Ricketts said State Corrections Director Scott Frakes has a plan for controlling the virus that the state will continue to follow.


Our best staff photos of May 2020

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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