Despite slow start, Ricketts confident in TestNebraska
Nebraska may not make its goal of conducting 3,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of May through the state’s TestNebraska program, but Gov. Pete Ricketts expressed confidence Thursday that testers will reach that pace “at some point” if residents continue to sign up.
His comments came after state officials reported that the program produced 2,358 results last week — well short of the 3,000 per day that was expected by the end of the month, when the ramp-up period is supposed to end.
Ricketts announced the $27 million coronavirus testing contract with Utah-based Nomi Health and three other firms on April 21, along with plans for a five-week ramp-up period to reach the estimated 3,000 tests per day. The state has opened four mobile testing sites so far in different cities, with plans to open six and a goal that each will see 500 residents daily.
“We’re working toward that right now,” Ricketts said Thursday. “It’s a new system, it’s been up about a week and a half now. We’re continuing to make improvements to it. So, I’m confident that we will get to that 3,000 tests a day at some point. But part of it’s going to be people have to sign up for it.”
States are scrambling to test as many people as possible for the virus to keep it from spreading and overwhelming local hospitals. The TestNebraska contract gave state officials access to 540,000 coronavirus testing kits, lab equipment, technology support and other assistance, but public officials are responsible for administering and analyzing the tests.
The program has faced criticism from some Nebraska state lawmakers and problems have been reported in Iowa and Utah, which have similar contracts.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday only 4,000 people have been tested since the program’s launch, but she expects the pace to accelerate now that testing machines have been validated.
Nebraska saw four more deaths Wednesday from COVID-19, and local health department officials expressed growing concern over the high number of infection among minorities.
The state’s total deaths from COVID-19 since the outbreak began earlier this year is now at 107, state health officials said. The state also saw a surge of 383 new coronavirus cases confirmed on Wednesday, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 9,075. Nebraska’s hospitals still have a large number of beds, intensive-care unit space and ventilators if needed, according to Department of Health and Human Services.
The new numbers were released as health department officials in Omaha and Lincoln said a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases are being seen among minority populations. In Douglas County, the health department says more than 40% of its cases have been confirmed in the Latino community. In Lincoln, the mayor’s office said in a news release that nearly 70% of cases in Lancaster County are Asian, Latino or black.
For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.
Nebraska also plans to expand the number “contract tracers” who help track people who may have been exposed to the virus. Nebraska now has 277 state employees who are helping local public health departments with the task and plans to build up to 1,000 by contracting with another private firm.
Felicia Quintana-Zinn, a state health employee who is helping lead that effort, said Nebraska typically had about 30 contract tracers statewide before the pandemic.
“We really needed to ramp that up and support our local public health departments,” she said.