State aims to ramp up COVID-19 testing as restrictions relaxed

Cars lined up for diagnostic testing at UNLV May 27. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis).

As more Nevada businesses reopen under Phase 2, testing for COVID-19 has ramped up in the state and on Monday Gov. Steve Sisolak announced plans to increase capacity for community-based testing, laboratory analysis, and a contact tracing plan.

The plan set by the governor’s office establishes a goal to perform COVID-19 testing on 2 percent of the state’s population each month — that’s about 60,000 tests — for at least a year.

So far the state has met that objective. For the month of May, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that over 100,000 tests were performed, beating the 2 percent target. About 170,000 COVID-19 tests have been performed in the state as of Sunday. 

The 2 percent figure was chosen based on federal grant guidance. Last month federal health officials announced plans to provide each state with enough tests, swabs and related materials to screen at least 2 percent of their populations in May by distributing about $11 billion from the CARES Act to states based on a formula comparing the prevalence of COVID-19 in relation to their overall populations.

The Nevada Interim Finance Committee accepted grant funding Monday to support implementation of the plan. The boost in testing efforts across the state will be funded mostly through the CARES Act, the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grant funds from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and federal reimbursements via the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program, according to the governor’s office.

Public health experts have warned that if states don’t have robust daily testing capacity as they reopen they will be unable to detect outbreaks quickly enough to contain them, which could lead to more shutdowns.

“What is most important isn’t reaching a magic number,” said  Dr. Mark Pandori, who will serve as the State’s Chief of Testing, in an email to the Current. “The most important thing about testing is capacity.”

“You need to be able to test a lot of people quickly to squash outbreaks and to gather intelligence more rapidly. Note that if you test a population of 1,000 people in one day that ascertains whether they have COVID-19, on that day. Two weeks later, do you know whether they are infected or not?”

“I guess it is sort of like if you were in a house, chasing your dog. Your dog goes into the living room, and then into the dining room and then into the kitchen and disappears. You follow it. You get to the kitchen … and lose sight of the dog. So you are standing in the kitchen and someone asks you, “Is your dog in the living room?” What is your answer? I hope your answer is this:  “I don’t know. I tested my living room and it was negative for the dog. But that was 45 seconds ago.” You’d have to go back and look.”

Capacity to run laboratory tests in the state is at about 4,000 tests a day on average in part because of partnerships with UMC, the Nevada state public health lab, and private sector clinics, said Calab Cage the State of Nevada COVID-19 Response Director.

Within four weeks the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory plans to continue to expand testing capacity to 7,000 per day or 45,000 tests per week.

Several cost-free COVID-19 drive-thru testing locations have opened across the state including a site run by UMC at the UNLV Tropicana parking garage with a capacity of about 1,200 appointments a day. On the first day the site opened patients reported two hour wait times for testing.

“We are seeing a strong response from the public scheduling appointments to be tested at this site and others throughout the community,” said Clark County Commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick in a statement. “As we begin Phase Two of our reopening in Nevada, it continues to be important for residents to take this virus seriously so we can keep our community safe, stay open, and work on rebuilding our economy.”

Sisolak’s plan includes the ongoing development of “a robust and sustainable testing system statewide” using community-based testing events and testing through employers and private health care systems, according to the governor’s office.

“This plan marks a major milestone for the State of Nevada, formalizing and expanding our existing efforts to battle COVID-19 as we embrace our new normal,” said Sisolak in a statement. “Creating this plan has been a massive undertaking jointly led by Nevada’s  Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Emergency Management and State Public Health Laboratory, and I am pleased to begin executing the comprehensive strategy to help protect all Nevadans.”

Part of the plan calls for a two month stockpile of PPE for hospitals and communities for future outbreaks or waves of COVID-19 as well as at least a 30-day supply of masks in all public-facing State of Nevada offices.

Another major component of Sisolak’s strategy is to support statewide contact tracing efforts, which involves a statewide digital contact tracing solution and other technology to identify and interview new cases of COVID-19 within 24- hours of laboratory confirmation.

The state estimates the planned two year contract tracking operation will cost about $128.8 million for vendors, including a contract with Deloitte to provide more than 250 contact tracers and a contract with Salesforce to “modernize and streamline” case investigation in order to quickly identify and notify potential COVID-19 patients. 

Following the governor’s Phase 2 reopening announcement some groups, including the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents roughly 60,000 employees who work in casinos-resort properties, have been critical of testing efforts in the state and what they say is a lack of transparency. 

Culinary leader Geoconda Argüello-Kline urged the Gaming Control Board May 26 to give workers “all the tools they need,” adding transparency is “crucial.”

Earlier in the month, Southern Nevada Health District Acting Chief Health Officer Fermin Leguen recommended that all frontline employees such as housekeepers, restaurant and casino staff be tested before resorts reopen, and retested once every two weeks for the first month and then monthly until the end of Phase 3.

The Culinary Union urged the Nevada Gaming Commission, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, and the Clark County Commission to follow the health districts recommendations and implement stronger testing and protection standards for casino resorts.

The union also supports other recommendations by the SNHD, like temperature checks for guests and employees who enter hotels and providing face masks for guests at arrival.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.