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Chief of Idaho Bureau of Laboratories discusses Idaho's limitations on COVID-19 testing

Dr. Christopher Ball explains why few people can be tested for COVID-19, such as those with symptoms or those who have been in contact with an infected individual.

BOISE, Idaho — During Idaho Gov. Brad Little's press conference on Thursday, Dr. Christine Hahn, Idaho's state epidemiologist, mentioned that the state may need to reevaluate its COVID-19 testing strategy in the coming weeks.

In April, Gov. Little created a task force designed specifically to research COVID-19 testing in Idaho. The task force is led by Dr. Christopher Ball, chief of the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories.

On Wednesday, Saint Alphonsus in Boise announced they would only be administering COVID-19 tests for individuals with symptoms and those who came in contact with an infected individual.

Ball says testing is just one part of the solution to the pandemic.

"While there's been a lot of focus on testing in this pandemic response, the testing needs to be done in proportion with all of the public health mitigation efforts and clinical care that we can provide in concert," Ball said. 

Ball explained that it is important for the state to test people in proportion with the state's ability to provide care and rehabilitation to those that become ill.

"This is a brand new virus, these are brand new methods and we're building this testing infrastructure largely from scratch," Ball said. "So the ability to actually preform testing is one of the issues we're facing. There's just not enough bandwidth." 

Not every test sample is sent to Ball's laboratory, however. Ball says the IBL is in a large group of laboratories within the state that are all conducting COVID-19 testing.

All laboratories are working to conduct testing in their specific region, according to Ball.

"The market that [IBL] is trying to provide testing for are high-priority public health samples, folks in long-term care facilities, folks from the Department of Correction, those that are under insured, and those that are very vulnerable in the public health sense," Ball said.

Ball says the reason for focusing on the listed groups has largely to do with turning tests around, or getting meaningful results, quickly. He explained that results largely depend on available supplies.

"If we have an adequate supply of materials and we don't have a big backlog of samples, we can usually return the result within a day," Ball said. "The actual analytical time takes about four hours. So depending on the sample volume we have, your results could be as quick as four hours or it could be multiple days."

Ball said that most laboratories in Idaho are experiencing a high demand for testing, IBL included.

"For the last two weeks, we've been having anywhere from a 600 to 800 sample backlog everyday," Ball said. "We've been steadily working on building up our capacity."

When testing started in February, Ball says IBL could get through a dozen samples per day. Now, labs can process as many as 250 samples per day.

Ball also said IBL is hoping to be able to increase their testing capacity to 500 or 600 per day by the end of next week, thanks to federal funding that allowed the lab to purchase new instrumentation. 

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