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Collaborative efforts expand COVID-19 testing

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The Washoe County Health District’s drive-through COVID-19 testing site ramped up its workforce and test collection capacity last week. 

District Health Officer Kevin Dick said as flu season ends, the district is seeing a smaller demand for testing as fewer people are filling out the risk assessment form. 

“I think we’re in a situation now where we’re moving beyond the flu season and so we have far fewer people that have the influenza-like illness syndrome, or symptoms, that are consistent with COVID-19,” he said. “As we get into the fall season, we’ll expect to have flu happening at the same time as COVID-19 down the road. 

“So, we’ll need to have that capacity for symptomatic people to be able to have them come through and be tested so we can identify whether it’s COVID-19, or not, or the flu or some other respiratory virus.”

The testing site is located at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center, which is where the Reno Rodeo usually takes place, but is canceled this year

There are now six total testing stations, which can perform 150 tests per hour if operating at full capacity, for a total of 900 tests per day. The state instructed Washoe County to test 1,000 individuals for COVID-19 per day.

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A station at Washoe County’s drive-through testing site at the Reno Livestock Events Center. Image: Eric Marks

Testing is limited to individuals who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, and health officials urge everyone with COVID-19 symptoms to fill out an online risk assessment form to schedule an appointment to get tested for COVID-19. The form is available in English and Spanish

The site is staffed by health district employees, public health nurses, medical students, volunteers from Washoe County Medical Reserve Corps and members of the Nevada National Guard.

It operates Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Hospitals in the region are also conducting COVID-19 tests.

Numbers fall short of available capacity

Roughly 300 people have been tested per four days a week at the test site. Despite doubling workforce and the number of testing stations, the same amount of people are getting tested for COVID-19 since the site opened in mid-April. 

Officials said it’s important to have expanded capacity in case there’s a surge of individuals who get infected and start experiencing symptoms in the future. 

COVID-19 test collection materials are still not widely available. The testing site has 600 to 700 test collection kits according to Lisa Lottritz with the county’s Division of Community and Clinical Health Services. 

There is no timeline for when asymptomatic individuals can get tested. Lottritz said if and when that becomes a reality, the testing site needs to have capacity to test an increased number of people.

“I would see … right at the beginning when we changed that, that more people would want to be tested. We’ll just have to see how it goes,” she said, “That’s why we opened six stations so we can practice how that would look if we do get that many, you know, filled to capacity and run full speed. But yeah, I think we’re ready.”

National Guard helps with testing efforts 

After individuals fill out the online risk assessment and get scheduled, they are to remain in their car and drive through various checkpoints. They will first be asked for an ID and then move to a different station where they will get a lab slip. 

These two stations are completely operated by members of the Nevada National Guard. The Guard helps direct traffic and conducts the COVID-19 tests.

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Members of the Nevada National Guard assist at Washoe County’s drive-through testing site with scheduling, traffic control, collection, contact tracing and results notification. Image: Eric Marks

Guard members also work in the call center to schedule patients for appointments and contact people about their results. It takes about 72 hours for the results.

Sisolak activated the Nevada National Guard on April 1. They are also helping with contact tracing, which is the process of interviewing people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and determining who they have had contact with.

At the county’s drive-through testing site there are about 50 National Guard staff on site during a test day, and there are 100 in total according to David Orr with the Nevada National Guard. Orr worked as an ICU nurse before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’m handling it okay. I know some people are scared. There’s kind of a hyper-awareness with any illness going on, even just like allergies,” Orr said.

The Nevada National Guard is activated until the end of May. Those orders could be extended.

Washoe County to reopen at same pace as state 

Gov. Steve Sisolak said Nevada met the benchmarks required to begin reopening over the past two weeks. Those benchmarks include a steady decrease in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19, increased testing capacity, sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and hospital capacity.

As a result, Sisolak lifted a significant number of restrictions May 9 such as allowing dining inside restaurants, and reopening hair salons and nonessential retailers. Sisolak said individual counties in Nevada can impose tighter restrictions if they feel that they’re not ready to reopen.

There has been an increase in COVID-19-related hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks here in Washoe County. But Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey said on Friday the county will proceed to reopen under the guidance of Phase One of Sisolak’s reopening plan

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Commissioner Bob Lucey

“We are going to continue to see positives as we continue to ramp up testing through our community, but it does have a direct correlation, and we’re looking at those ratios every day as it correlates to our population,” Lucey said. “We also have plans in place, if need be, to expand that hospitalization footprint if that becomes an issue, if a surge becomes a part of our local reality.”

Only 50 percent capacity is allowed in all businesses that are permitted to have patrons inside, under reopening guidelines. Employees interacting with the public must wear masks. 

Assistant County Manager Dave Solaro said that he’s certain businesses will follow the directives and won’t have to face the consequences.

“Our real push is going to be to educate and if we get to the point where the Sheriff’s office or the police departments need to be called in for noncompliance, we have ways, with business licensing, the health district as well with their permitting. I just hope that it doesn’t get to that point,” Solaro said. “I think our businesses are relishing the fact that they are able to now start to make plans to open up and get to that point. I truly believe that we live in such a great community, that we’re not going to see very many rogue actors out there trying to do their own thing and buck the system. 

“Certainly, we do have those stronger enforcement actions available to us, but I’m pretty certain that we’re not going to get there.”

Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.

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