A top state official said on Wednesday that Maine health care providers will get enough of the highly-touted machines with test kits made in Scarborough to test 2,400 people in minutes for the new coronavirus, but it was unclear where the kits would be sent.
Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the tests will allow for quicker results and are part of a strategy to conserve protective equipment that has been in short supply. The state will get 15 machines with test kits made in Scarborough by Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories.
The United States has been criticized for lagging behind other countries in testing, both for having too few tests on hand and processing them slowly. While the U.S. on Tuesday reported that 1 million people have been tested, thousands of tests are still pending, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
The traditional tests used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state agencies typically take several days to return results. The new Abbott test caused excitement across the nation, with health officials calling it a “game-changer.” President Donald Trump highlighted the machines at a Monday news conference.
On Wednesday, Shah told reporters that front-line health care workers use “a fair amount” of personal protective equipment — or PPE — including masks, gloves and face shields during the period of time when they are treating people who are awaiting test results for the virus.
He said that is a “reasonable” strategy for workers to protect themselves. But the Maine CDC director noted that if the workers knew earlier that a patient was negative, they wouldn’t have to use as many masks, gloves and face shields.
“If we can shorten the amount of time between when a patient comes in with signs and symptoms and when they get a negative test, we can reduce PPE usage,” Shah said.
It is unclear how those machines and the 100 test kits that Maine will get will be distributed, with two of Maine’s largest health care systems saying they have not heard details from the CDC and a third saying it will not seek the additional equipment.
MaineHealth, the largest health care system in Maine and the parent of Maine Medical Center in Portland, will “absolutely” seek to obtain some of the new equipment, said spokesperson John Porter, and may already have some of the machines. Any existing equipment would be moved to wherever the provider feels they would “clear patients quickly.”
“When a patient is in an unknown status, we have to put full protective measures in place,” he said. “So having rapid testing would make a difference in that scenario.”
Meanwhile, Senior Vice President James Jarvis of Bangor-based Eastern Maine Medical Center said the system managed Northern Light Health has enough resources to test itself for “quite some time” and the turnaround for the existing test is “adequate for our needs.”
A spokesperson for Augusta-based MaineGeneral said it had not spoken with the Maine CDC about procuring the machines or testing kits. Shah said Thursday the department will be conducting analysis to determine where the machines already are and how best to place them.
The machines will not be used to reduce the state’s backlog of tests, which Shah estimated to be around 400 on Wednesday. Those samples come from low-risk individuals and will eventually be sent to North-Carolina based LabCorp, which Axios reported can take up to a week to deliver results. The company says it can perform 20,000 tests a day.
Shah said Maine will soon get 15 of the Abbott machines needed to read the test. Industry estimates put their cost at about $5,000 each. A positive test can be confirmed in 5 minutes and a negative test in 13 minutes, according to Abbott. The company estimates it can make 50,000 test kits a day at a price of $40 each.
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