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Coronavirus testing expands in Arizona as need grows

Commercial labs are now providing the test that's been handled by the state lab in Phoenix. Limited testing was already on track to double in just one week.

PHOENIX — Coronavirus testing at Arizona's State Health Lab is on track to double in less than a week. 

But until now, most people were shut out of getting a test. 

That's changing.

Three commercial health labs say they are now providing tests for the COVID-19 coronavirus:

 - On Monday, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics started offering the tests.

- On Wednesday, Sonora Quest Laboratories, a subsidiary of Quest Diagnostics and Banner Health, will provide them. 

You can't walk into the lab to request a test; a doctor or a hospital has to order it. 

"Having less testing capacity makes the entire community less safe," said Will Humble, a former state health services director who's now executive director at the Arizona Public Health Association. 

He applauded the expanded testing but remains concerned that health care workers, who are in contact with the most vulnerable populations, aren't getting swifter access to tests.

"What you need is the information to make sure the folks coming into work are safe to be there," Humble said.

Since late January, nine Arizonans have been diagnosed with coronavirus - one of them a health care worker in Maricopa County, according the Arizona Department of Health Services.

In recent days, the number of people tested for the illness by the State Health Laboratory in Phoenix has soared from 56 on Friday, to 84 at the end of the day Monday, and hit 100 by Wednesday. 

A spokesman for Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ, the state's top public health official, says there are no concerns about being able to perform more tests for the coronavirus. 

But the State Health Lab doesn't test just anyone. In order to request a test there, doctors have to check boxes - the patient has to have traveled to high-risk areas or been exposed to a coronavirus patient.

Humble said the limits on testing were dictated by a shortage of tests provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC has been criticized for a weeks-long delay in getting test kits to labs as the coronavirus spread.

"That's limited the number of folks that can get tested," Humble said.

The testing at commercial labs will have looser requirements for patients, in line with new guidance from the CDC and Maricopa County. Patients wouldn't need to show they had traveled to high-risk areas or were exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus.

A spokeswoman for New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics said its U.S.-based labs should be performing tens of thousands of tests a week within the next six weeks.

State health officials say the cost of commercial tests is covered for Medicaid users.

At a White House meeting Tuesday, major health insurers pledged to cover the test cost for customers. Coverage for further testing or treatment isn't clear. 

Separately, the state Department of Health Services has changed how it describes the test kits provided by the CDC. 

DHS initially received 300 test kits about 10 days ago. 

The number of test kits can be a misleading indicator, because a patient might need up to three test kits for a diagnosis. It depends on the number of specimens doctors provide to the lab - nose or throat swabs, or saliva. 

It appeared that the state lab might run out of those 300 test kits, as completed tests climb past 100. 

DHS spokesman Chris Minnick told 12 News on Tuesday that there were enough tests for 225 "patient samples," or specimens. The agency won't use the term "test kits," he said, because the "math won't line up" with the number of patients tested.

Minnick said 24 specimens were tested Tuesday from 11 people.

At that rate, the existing tests for 225 patient samples would cover about 100 people.

He said 150 "patient samples" were on order.


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