Austin’s ambitious plan to ramp up COVID-19 testing proves to be more challenging in June

Coronavirus

Austin (KXAN) — In May, Austin health leaders set up ambitious benchmarks to ramp up COVID-19 testing for the months to come. Health leaders acknowledged the plan to increase testing was a “lofty goal.”

Travis County far exceeded Austin Public Health’s goal to have 10,000 tests administered in Austin-Travis County during the month of May, with state data indicating 23,948 tests were administered that month.

But Austin Public Health’s goal of having 40,000 tests administered during the entire month of June is proving more challenging. The most recently reported state data shows that from the first of June through June 29, Travis County administered 26,916 tests, falling short of the goal for 40,000 tests.

These testing goals were sent from Austin Public Health to city leaders in a memo on May 22, which also stated these same goals had been submitted to the state and federal government.

These testing goals are not just for tests administered at Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 test sites, but rather for all COVID-19 tests administered in any facility across Austin-Travis County.

(KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey) A photo of CommUnity Care’s drive up COVID-19 testing site.

A spokesperson for Austin Public Health said that the department will have to wait for updates for the Texas Department of State Health Services to get the best estimate of how many tests were conducted in Austin-Travis County in June.

Austin Public Health says the biggest challenges in expanding testing capabilities are a combination of factors including availability of test kits, funding, personal protective equipment, qualified staff, and other medical organizations in the community with the ability to expand their testing operations. All these factors the spokesperson said, combined with the increased, recent demand for testing, are a challenge when it comes to the area’s testing capacity.

For the first three months of the pandemic, Austin Public Health did not offer COVID-19 tests to people in the general public who did not have symptoms.

But the department lowered the bar for who could qualify for testing in early June to allow more people who may have been exposed in large groups of people to get testing. In the weeks that followed, however, reports of long lines at test sites increased and this past week, Austin Public Health decided to return to only testing those with symptoms for COVID-19.

The department, prior to this week, encouraged everyone to use their testing sites. But now, APH is asking those with health insurance to contact their doctor or insurance provider to get a test so that free city resources can be saved for those without insurance.

Testing has significantly increased in Austin since the start of the pandemic. From the start of the pandemic through the end of April, state data shows that Travis County administered 12,605 tests during that entire period of time.

The city spokesperson noted that Austin Public Health, in conjunction with CommUnity Care and Austin Regional Clinic, tested approximately 11,000 COVID-19 tests in the past week, which exceeds the rate of tests per week APH had been aspiring for this month. To administer 40,000 tests per month in June as the department hoped, Austin-Travis County would need to administer tests at a rate of 9,331 per week.

According to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Travis County administered 31,740 COVID-19 tests from the start of the pandemic through May 26. Austin Public Health set a goal of having 40,000 tests administered in the county in the entire month of June and 60,000 tests administered in the entire month of July (KXAN/Andy Davis)

Austin Public Health also set goals to ramp up testing even more significantly in the months to come, aiming to have Austin and Travis County administering 60,000 tests per month by July and to maintain that rate in all the following months through December. The spokesperson for Austin Public Health noted that while the goal for July is still to reach 60,000 tests in Austin-Travis County, she gave the caveat that this goal is based on certain assumptions such as the availability of tests and staff members.

Sharing the load of testing

Other groups working with Austin Public Health to meet these testing goals are feeling the impacts of the demand in different ways.

Austin Regional Clinic tells KXAN that they are currently able to meet the patient demand for COVID-19 tests. But ARC Chief Medical Information Officer Dr. Manish Naik, noted that ARC is “continuing to face challenges with obtaining testing supplies – both testing kits and testing swabs for obtaining samples. “

He added that reference laboratories, private local labs, which run swabs and test kits for all healthcare facilities are seeing “a big increase in demand.” ARC, for example, uses LabCorp and Clinical Pathology Labs to run their tests.

“As a result, we are seeing an increase in turnaround times for results,” Naik said, adding that most results are taking between five and ten days to come back from the labs.

Austin Regional Clinic drive-through testing (KXAN Photo)
Austin Regional Clinic drive-through testing (KXAN Photo)

A spokesperson for CommUnity Care said that their organization’s COVID-19 testing capacity “has far exceeded any expectations” they had set, though CommUnity Care is not bound by any particular goals to test a certain amount.

“As a reminder, we are here to support APH as the leading health authority and we’re even prouder to be able to report that we have been able to provide a total of 17,500 tests to date, free of charge to those who need it most,” the CommUnity Care spokesperson said.

She added that CommUnity Care’s biggest challenge with COVID-19 testing has been meeting the demand for testing from the community.

Eventually, Austin Public Health is looking to transition more of the testing work into companies they can contract with so that APH staff can return to doing investigations for other outbreaks like HIV, STDs and foodborne illnesses.

CommUnity Care’s Hancock drive up COVID-19 test site (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

“We have a number of companies now within the state of Texas who have built infrastructure to be able to deliver large-scale testing, that we may be able to step away some of our city and county resources from [COVID-19 testing] if they can do it efficiently,” said Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott to Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday.

Escott told Austin City Council members Monday that as APH is able to gather more data from COVID-19 testing locations, the department will be able to provide more accurate information about the number of tests being done and the rate of people testing positive. He said that from tests administered at Austin Public Health sites between June 21 and June 28, 9.6% of people were testing positive.

“We have been sprinting for quite some time and we have to ensure that the strategy we have in place and that we are moving to over the summer is going to be sustainable for a long duration of time,” Escott said of COVID-19 testing. “Which, certainly we expect to have at  least another year to deal with this, and in particular until we have an effective vaccine which has been identified, mass produced and made available to the public.”

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden explained to Austin City Council members Monday that APH staff are working to develop a map of all testing facilities in Austin and Travis County.

“As we move along, we may have times where we are going to have to make changes to meet the demands in the community,” Hayden told the council members.

For information on Austin Public Health about COVID-19 testing and resources, look here.

If anyone suspects they have symptoms of the virus, they can respond to ARC’s self-assessment tool at ARCcovidcheck.com which helps guide patients on the recommended measure of care.

For information on CommUnity Care’s COVID-19 resources, look here.

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