New Mexico labs rolling out new COVID-19 testing strategy

Coronavirus New Mexico

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – COVID-19 has been spreading rapidly in New Mexico. On Thursday, the state’s top doctor gave a modeling update on where we stand with the virus, and how the state is ramping up testing.

Dr. Karissa Culbreath, Infectious Disease Medical Director for TriCore Reference Laboratories joined Thursday’s presentation and explained how the state is rolling out a new strategy called ‘pooling,’ to expand lab testing.

“Working on small tubes and transferring samples, it’s a lot of work,” said Culbreath. “So we can go from you know testing maybe 94 samples at a time, to testing 300, nearly 400 samples at a time,” she added.

Dr. Culbreath explained ‘pooling’ combines multiple samples in a single test and will help the state process even more COVID-19 tests quicker. The method also helps protect the lab workforce, she added. “We automated that process to take out the potential for human error.”

Slide presented during October 22 webinar

The state is slowly rolling out the pooling strategy in places with lower positivity rates. However, as health officials pointed out on Thursday, more counties are trending upward for cases.

New Mexico’s daily COVID-19 case count average has increased 116% over the last two weeks. The state’s test positivity rate currently sits at 7.1%, well above the state’s goal of staying below 5%.

Hot spots for cases lately are Doña Ana and Bernalillo counties, and every age group has set a new record this week for the number of new cases.

“I can see now why they have reservations because if they didn’t, the place would be backed up not only in the parking lot but out into the street,” said Al Knight, who was looking to get a COVID test at a Presbyterian location on Thursday.

New Mexicans have recently reported they’ve had trouble scheduling same-day appointments for COVID-19 tests, and that the wait at walk-in clinics is too long.

“On appointments, we know we’re a little backed up every time the cases go up, we become oversubscribed,” said Dr. David Scrase, Secretary for the Human Services Department. “Of course we test all across the state.”

Dr. Scrase said pooling will help alleviate some of the wait times for testing. “I also am aware that the state is working to get additional laboratory support from out-of-state labs that can guarantee a 24-hour turn-around time,” said Dr. Scrase. “So that’s in the works, nothing final yet.”

People 19-years-old and younger now make up 16.5% of cases in the state. Young adults still make up the majority of current cases across New Mexico.

Dr. Scrase said TriCore and the state are still working to independently review a large batch of rapid Abbott BinaxNow antigen tests it received from the federal government. New Mexico is expecting to receive 630,000 more antigen tests between now and the end of the year.

Dr. Scrase said he’s hopeful to start putting the rapid antigen tests to use in the next few weeks. However, the antigen tests will have to run through a federally certified laboratory.

“I think you’ll first see these rollout in metro areas with hospital system drive-thru like clinics,” said Dr. Scrase. “I think you’ll see them rollout in DOH. But again, they’re just for symptomatic people.”

New Mexico Coronavirus Resource Guide

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