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More tests, reopen Nevada: Sisolak addresses statewide concerns

By Lucia Starbuck

There’s a scarcity of COVID-19 testing kits nationwide, and that’s no different here in Nevada. On April 16, Gov. Steve Sisolak held a press conference on his YouTube page to address these shortage concerns.

The Nevada State Public Health Lab (NSPHL) is constructing collection kits and distributing them to county health districts and hospitals. The NSPHL has about 5,000 tests on hand, and currently has the capacity to run 400 tests per day.

“I don’t want to imply that this is enough. We have testing function, but if we want to move forward we’re going to need to do more,” Dr. Mark Pandori, the director of NSPHL said.

Making tests locally

The COVID-19 test is made up of multiple parts. Pandori said it’s been a challenge acquiring the different components of the test, and all of the materials are required to successfully run a test. 

A health worker holds a test kit swab
A health worker shows a test kit
swab. Image: Eric Marks

The COVID-19 test requires a swab, which is inserted far into a patient’s nose, and a tube with fluid inside to carry the specimen taken from the nose to a lab. Labs require reagent, which is a chemical used to extract the specimen to test it for the virus.

In regards to reagent, Pandori said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves products for usage one at a time, which creates a delay in acquiring product. However, the FDA gave states the option to take on the responsibility to scientifically test the quality of reagents and other test components. The NSPHL took advantage of that opportunity in late March in an effort to increase testing capacity. 

The School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno, where NSPHL resides, is using 3D printers to create swabs. The NSPHL has also been constructing swabs, transport tubes and the fluid that is inside of the tubes. The lab also also receives test components from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Pandori said testing will be even more crucial moving forward.

“We have to press on the gas pedal and get even more testing done because we have to now address the public health function of testing. This is about gathering intelligence,” Pandori said.

“This is about finding out where the enemy is, how much of it, and finding out that number for two reasons. How much risk is there out there as we start to come out of this and try to reenter normalcy? But also to ask, ‘Hey, when the smoke clears, how many people were infected and are infected?’, because we still don’t know that denominator.”

Pandori mentioned that antibody tests should be arriving in Nevada over the next few weeks. While this blood test can’t determine if one is currently positive or negative, it will reveal if a person’s body has created antibodies in response to being exposed to or infected with COVID-19. Pandori said antibody tests will provide more public health information.

When will Nevada open back up?

Sisolak’s press conference intended to focus on COVID-19 testing, but that wasn’t the question at the top of many peoples’ minds. The governor fielded a significant number of questions about when Nevada will open back up.

The Mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, recently criticized Sisolak’s order to close non-essential businesses, calling it ‘total insanity.’

“I’m not going to respond to those comments or attacks that are made of me or my decisions. I can tell you that I spend 24 hours a day, my wife can tell you I don’t sleep well anymore, analyzing these decisions,” Sisolak said. “I know it’s tough to stay home. I understand that. But it’s tough for it to have Nevadans die on your watch. Those are the instances I have to weigh, and I’m putting the lives of my fellow Nevadans ahead of any dollars, and we will open when the time is right.”

Sisolak doesn’t have a definitive date of when businesses will reopen. He said he’s consulting with Pandori and medical advisors. He said he’s also analyzing data provided to him regarding hospital intensive care admissions, occupancy of beds and average number of positive cases of COVID-19 in Nevada.

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