JOHNSTON — Delays in Iowa’s COVID-19 testing results Friday frustrated efforts to get a better fix on the spread of a potentially deadly respiratory disease on a day when businesses in 77 counties started to reopen and the state posted its highest daily count of confirmed cases of the pandemic virus with 739.
Gov. Kim Reynolds attributed the spike to more aggressive testing. Indeed, data shows the results announced Friday represent the largest number of daily tests conducted so far.
She told her daily briefing at the state’s emergency operations center she expected Iowa would continue to see high, possibly record, case counts through the weekend as the State Hygienic Lab in Coralville tries to catch up with processing samples.
Reynolds acknowledged that “ramping up” Iowa’s testing capacity has created a backlog at the state lab as technicians work to process and validate results. She said the delay was common for any new testing startup and she expected the lab to soon catch up.
“I want to assure Iowans that this is a short-term issue while the lab is transitioning to not only a higher volume of tests on an ongoing basis,” Reynolds said, “but as they work through the validation of the ‘Test Iowa’ process.”
The Gazette first asked the governor’s office about potential backlogs on Wednesday afternoon. Despite repeated attempts over several days since then to get the questions answered, Reynolds’ staff has declined to answer specific questions — including quantifying the scope of the backlog and saying how many of the samples under the Test Iowa Initiative have actually been processed.
An Eastern Iowa hospital told The Gazette that tests sent to the State Hygienic Lab recently were taking up to five days for processing — meaning a patient would have to wait that long to find out if he or she were infected. The hospital typically had been seeing a 48-hour turnaround.
A statement provided by the State Hygienic Lab said it “is still working to validate the Test Iowa equipment, a routine part of bringing new equipment online, and will complete that process as soon as possible.
“In the meantime, SHL is processing Test Iowa specimens using all the means at its disposal and fully expects to be fully caught up by this weekend, barring unexpected problems.”
Iowa contracted with the Utah-based private health care software company Nomi Health on a $26 million program to ramp up coronavirus testing. The program, Test Iowa, is based on a similar program first implemented in Utah.
The governor noted public health and other state entities have deployed “strike teams” to conduct testing at long-term care facilities and manufacturing plants, as well as opening Test Iowa drive-through sites in Des Moines and Waterloo. Those efforts have generated a high volume of tests that have backed up awaiting results at the State Hygienic Lab.
“We’re seeing the number of cases increase, and so their team is working three shifts around the clock to get these tests processed and get the information to the individuals who are doing the case investigations and the contact tracing,” Reynolds said. “For Iowans who are still waiting for their results, we are sorry for the delay, but you will receive your results this weekend.”
According to data issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health, 13,620 tests were conducted over the past seven days, compared with 10,181 the week before.
The governor also reported that the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in eight more deaths — most of them being older and elderly residents. Included were four Iowans over age 81 — two in Polk County and one each in Bremer and Muscatine counties; another Muscatine County resident in the 61-80 age range; and three Iowans in the 41-60 range — one in Scott and two in Linn counties.
To date, 7,884 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, but 37% have recovered. Overall, 45,593 have been tested, which represents 1 out of every 69 Iowans, the governor said.
“I want Iowans to know that because of the large number of tests we’ve conducted recently, we do anticipate the overall numbers that will be reported this weekend …,” she cautioned, “may be higher than usual as we’ve seen in today’s numbers. So please keep in mind that a high volume of tests were among essential workers in communities or facilities where virus activities is high.”
An additional 44 Iowans were hospitalized Friday for coronavirus-related symptoms and illnesses over the past 24 hours, bringing that total to 345 statewide. A total of 121 patients are in intensive care units, and 91 require ventilators to aid their breathing, according to data at coronavirus.iowa.gov.
Friday’s record count of daily confirmed cases was issued on the day Reynolds gave the green light to restaurants, malls, fitness clubs and other businesses in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties to resume operations on a limited basis. Clinton, Cedar, Jackson and Jones counties were among the 77, but closures continue in Scott, Muscatine and Louisa counties.
Friday also was the first day that Calhoun, Decatur, Floyd, Sac and Wayne counties — all among the 77 counties allowed to begin a phased-in reopening process — registered their first positive cases, leaving only eight counties yet untouched by the coronavirus outbreak.
“Businesses are making the decisions based on what they feel they are ready to do. We’re not seeing everybody open back up. We’re seeing variations in that,” Reynolds noted. “We’re going to continue in a very responsible manner open things up in the state of Iowa.”
Iowa’s other 22 counties — spread through areas of central and Eastern Iowa — remain under restrictions that limit public gatherings and maintain social-distancing requirements.
Those areas still restricted include the population centers of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Iowa City, Davenport, Sioux City and Waterloo.
Reynolds noted that nearly 85% (627) of Friday’s 739 confirmed COVID-19 cases were in the 22 counties with the most virus activity — including 516 cases in Black Hawk, Dallas, Polk and Woodbury counties.
However, that was down from 96% of the cases in those 22 counties on April 28.
“We are all working to adjust to what life with COVID-19 will be like as we move through this pandemic,” Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said. “We know that this is a difficult time and Iowans need to continue to be responsible in taking care of their own health as well as protecting the health of our communities.”
With the potential for higher confirmed COVID-19 tests results this weekend, Reisetter said she did not believe Iowa had seen its peak yet.
“We have anticipated all along that the end of April/early May was going to be the time that we would see a peak of test results,” she said during Friday’s briefing. “I don’t necessarily at this point in time want to speculate that we’ve met our peak and that we’re going in the other direction.”
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