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Gov. Little outlines priority groups for COVID-19 testing. Here’s how each can get tests


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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — As the state continues to reopen, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and members of his task forces announced an updated strategy for expanded, organized coronavirus testing during a press conference Friday at the Idaho Capitol in Boise.

The plan breaks down five priority groups when it comes to testing, and now includes offering testing to some people who are asymptomatic. The state hopes to accrue more coronavirus tests and focus on particular populations, including health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Little and Dr. Christopher Ball, director of the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories and co-chairman of the testing task force, said the state’s tiered plan puts those with the highest need of testing in Group 1 and those with the lowest need in Group 5.

Symptomatic and asymptomatic people can be tested, depending on where they fall into the priority groups.

“The testing task force strongly recommends that investment in local testing capacity be significantly increased,” Ball said.

This was a theme of the press conference, the need for greater testing capability. But there were not a lot of specifics offered on how exactly the state will coordinate the ramp-up of testing.

Idaho’s COVID-19 priority testing groups

Breaking down the priority testing groups, Group 1 includes health care workers, first responders, hospitalized patients and residents of long-term care facilities showing symptoms of the virus. Also included are people who are asymptomatic but are hospitalized or in nursing homes, the “vulnerable population,” Ball said.

Regardless of whether they show symptoms, someone being tested in connection with a cluster investigation would be categorized in Group 1.

To test all of those who fall into Group 1, the state estimates that roughly 16,900 tests could be needed per week.

In Group 2, asymptomatic people who need testing include residents and staff at jails and prisons, as well as those in homeless shelters.

Anyone else who is showing symptoms would fall into Group 3, which also includes asymptomatic health care workers, first responders, mortuary staff and workers at essential businesses with “high volume public-facing working conditions,” such as a large retail or grocery store, Ball said.

Groups 4 and 5 consist of only asymptomatic people. Group 4 consists of people living at schools with dorms or barracks, day cares with more than 10 children, and teachers with classrooms of more than 10 children. Employees of nonessential businesses with people congregating are also in Group 4.

Lastly, those in Group 5 include asymptomatic people returning from areas of community spread, among others.

Gov. Little hopes to achieve federal testing goal

Little said Idaho hopes to follow a federal goal of being able to test 2% of the state’s population each month. That would mean testing roughly 8,000 people per week, which is within the state’s testing capability.

Elke Shaw-Tulloch — public health administrator for the Department of Health and Welfare and a member of the state’s testing task force — said the federal government has sent the state 40,000 testing swabs for May, and the state expects to receive 40,000 more in June.

“This will help, but more testing needs to be (done) in order to ensure that we have the people, the testing instruments and supplies to test all Idahoans needed to be tested,” Shaw-Tulloch said during the press conference.

Ball said that during the start of the outbreak, officials found the state’s testing capacity was roughly 7,500 per week. However, if state supply chains continue to improve and the state doesn’t “encounter any unexpected barriers,” it could perform a maximum of nearly 23,000 tests per week now, he said. This would include Idaho utilizing state laboratories and out-of-state commercial labs.

How coronavirus testing requirements have changed

Since Idaho’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus appeared in March, testing guidelines have varied. At first, a doctor would need to test for and rule out ailments such as influenza before signing off on a patient getting a coronavirus test.

As more and more cases were found, Idaho hospitals began to offer drive-thru testing, though many people were turned away and denied testing for various reasons. Numerous Idahoans told the Statesman that if their symptoms weren’t serious enough, they could not get the test. Some returned and were able to be tested, only to learn they had the virus.

Crush the Curve Idaho — a private, business-led initiative — has improved the availability of testing for the virus itself and for antibodies. The organization stepped in to test all employees at a Fry Food plant in Weiser after multiple employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

As of Thursday, more than 39,000 coronavirus tests have been performed in Idaho, with 2,305 people testing positive. Health officials say 77 Idahoans have died from the virus.