Updated March 28, 2020 - 8:32 am
Six weeks into coronavirus testing, Nevada health officials still don’t have enough kits to track the spread of the disease and hopefully slow the outbreak.
“We want to be able to test anybody who wants to get tested, and that’s not the case right now,” said Brian Labus, assistant professor at UNLV’s School of Public Health. “We need tests and have none. We don’t know how many we need, but we need more than we have.”
In Nevada, 9,150 people have been tested by government and private labs since Feb. 11, when the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory in Reno was given the green light to test. In comparison, California has tested 89,592, Arizona has tested 8,349 and Utah has tested 11,312, according to The COVID Tracking Project website. Nationwide, 801,416 people have been tested with 118,234 testing positive.
State and local officials have repeatedly stated they need more test kits. Four times they have asked the feds for testing components kits only to be told there is a “indefinite backlog.” “We need testing kits desperately,” Gov. Steve Sisolak told reporters Tuesday.
The inconsistent flow of critical public health information has been frustrating for anxious Nevadans who want to be tested quickly. Neither state health officials nor private lab representatives can provide basic information about drive-thru testing locations — and how many tests the state has received, requested or expects.
At one drive-up location in Las Vegas, Jose Triana, Sahara Urgent Care’s practice manager, conceded they have been overwhelmed with coronavirus tests and trying to call patients. He said Thursday they performed 1,000 tests in just the past three days.
“We are doing the best we can,” he said. “I wish we had enough people to keep up.”
Health officials have stated government lab tests will be reserved for people who have had close contact with the 738 people who had tested positive as of Saturday. Other patients are being advised to call their health care providers to determine if they can obtain private tests. The state has reported 14 deaths.
“The issue of scarce testing resources is a nationwide issue,” said Southern Nevada Health District spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore in an email exchange Thursday. “We continue to request and receive resources, and the laboratory has been able to maintain testing.”
Dr. Michael Johnson, Community Health Division director for the health district, said Friday that the district has 119 test kits left and they have been using about 40 a day. The Southern Nevada Public Health Laboratory is working with the Reno lab on validating its own test, and the northern lab hopes to start producing up to 1,000 kits a day when they become operational.
Tests are being conducted by NSPHL, SNPHL, Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp and smaller labs. The Reno lab has ramped up its testing from 120 patients a day to 400, but that still leaves people waiting who say they have been exposed but have not been tested.
In the past week, the number of tests performed has more than doubled. On some days, the state is reporting a 20 or 30 percent increase from the prior day, an analysis of daily snapshots of the state portal shows.
NSPHL has conducted the most tests in Nevada with 2,420 tests since the outbreak, and SNPHL 612. Labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp performed about nearly 7,750 tests.
The discrepancy between the numbers in the north and Clark County is because the Reno lab was the only one testing in the early stages of the outbreak, Labus said.
In the past three weeks, Clark County residents have been urgently seeking tests to determine if they have the virus.
Las Vegas resident Diana Andriola, 63, is wheelchair-bound, suffering from heart failure and a weakened immune system. She was around people with coronavirus before experiencing its symptoms, she said, but has been denied a test.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
She said she first went to her then-primary care physician Dr. Eric Wolfson at the end of February, but he would not give her the test. Soon after her visit, she received a letter from Wolfson, that she provided, saying he will no longer treat her.
The letter didn’t give a reason, and Wolfson’s staff did not return a call seeking comment.
Andriola then went to Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center, but hospital officials wouldn’t test her, records show.
Hospital spokeswoman Jennifer McDonnell declined to discuss specific patients but emailed that patients should initially go to their primary care doctors. “The emergency department should remain a resource for only those that are critically ill or injured,” the statement said.
At her wit’s end, Andriola called the city and the health district’s hotlines, but neither could provide her a place to get tested. “I’ve given up because I’m getting the runaround,” she said sobbing. “I just want to be tested and get it over with.”
Las Vegas residents who have been able to get tested are seeing delays in getting test results — sometimes more than a week.
Victor Caruso got tested on March 16, but he still does not have the results.
Caruso, 41, started experiencing fever and shortness of breath on March 12. Four days later, he and his 15-year-old daughter were tested at the drive-thru at Sahara West Urgent Care and promised results within three days.
Since then, he and his wife have been unable to reach Sahara officials to get his and his daughter’s results.
Caruso said he wants to know if he is contagious so he can warn people. “I think it’s a failure and a huge demonstration of how incompetent and unaware we are about how to handle these situations,” Caruso said. “We need to re-evaluate our response capability.”
Las Vegas resident Roshie Raissi was tested March 15 and received her results six days later. Her friend, Vivian Levisman, received a test at Sahara on March 17 but received only a call six days later with the results.
Caruso’s wife, Sarah, saw on the clinic’s Facebook page that they were only calling people with positive results but still wants confirmation her husband is negative. “What if they forgot to call?” she said. “It’s not being handled at all properly.”
Federal testing help
Federal Emergency Management Agency had promised to provide drive-thru testing equipment in Nevada, but backed off that commitment for unknown reasons.
FEMA spokeswoman Alexandria Bruner said Wednesday that she was still researching why the aid was not provided but said FEMA has to set priorities to fight the pandemic.
“Community-Based Testing Sites (CBTSs) are state-managed and locally executed operations integrated with broader state public health services that may require varying levels of federal personnel support,” she said in an email statement. “These sites are focused on testing our nation’s frontline heroes, healthcare facility workers and first responders, who are working around the clock to provide care, compassion, and safety to Americans.”
This week, federal officials have allowed Nevada to be one of three states that can develop and evaluate its own tests, which is designed to speed the process of increasing testing.
UNLV started up a drive-thru testing facility this week for people who have symptoms or have had contact with someone who tested positive.
Dr. Michael Gardner, UNLV School of Medicine vice dean, said the school has enough testing supplies to perform 200 tests a day Friday and next week. They expect to get another 1,000 kits for the following week from a private lab.
They are only testing people by appointment with symptoms or who have been exposed to people confirmed to have the virus, but he concedes more test sites are needed. “We wanted to do our part,” he said. “But we probably need to five or six similar (testing) centers across the valley. We don’t think we can do it all.”
Labus also wasn’t concerned that state figures show about 1,000 of the tests used were retests of the same people. Initial CDC guidance was to test people two or three times to be sure they are free from the virus, but more recent policy is that if you got sick more than seven days ago and your symptoms have been gone for at least 72 hours you are cleared, he said.
None of the state officials was able to provide a comprehensive list of where people can get tested, recommending people consult with their doctors or get screened by telemedicine.
Because of the shortage of tests, state health officials said they are trying to limit testing to people who need it.
“Tests are limited to those in the hospital, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, health care providers, first responders, law enforcement and high-risk individuals,” Nevada Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Shannon Litz said in an email exchange.
Labus said we will likely only know after the outbreak has subsided how many tests were needed and if we received enough.
“The answer depends on how much spread there will be in the community and how much testing we must do,” he said. “It’s impossible to predict.”
For questions about COVID-19, call the Southern Nevada Health District hotline at (702) 759-INFO (4636), 7 days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Review-Journal staff reporter Michael Scott Davidson contributed to this story.
Contact Arthur Kane at email@example.com. Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.