OMAHA — Health departments, private testing companies and others have been working to beef up COVID-19 testing capacity in parts of Nebraska where tests have been hard to come by lately.
While testing has been more widely available in Omaha and Lincoln, it has been limited in many rural areas of the state since the Test Nebraska program ended in July. The delta variant began surging soon after.
Since Test Nebraska closed, testing largely has been conducted by clinics, urgent care centers, pharmacies and private testing companies. From roughly mid-August through most of September, Nebraskans routinely sought more than 10,000 tests per day.
Recently, Omaha’s TotalWellness has arranged testing programs with Mark’s Pharmacy in Cambridge, and with the Fremont-based Three Rivers Public Health Department and the Two Rivers Public Health Department in Holdrege. Owner Alan Kohll said the company also is partnering with the South Heartland District Health Department in Hastings, that city’s Mary Lanning Healthcare and Hastings College on a testing initiative there.
Meanwhile, Nomi Health, the company that previously ran Test Nebraska, last week opened a test site in Grand Island. The firm previously opened another site in Scottsbluff and has been operating others in Omaha, Lincoln and Council Bluffs, Iowa. The company plans to open test sites at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha and South Omaha campuses later this month.
“Convenient, widespread access to COVID-19 testing remains an important tool in controlling the pandemic and getting people back to their normal routines,” Mark Newman, Nomi Health’s CEO and co-founder, said in a statement.
Dr. Tom Safranek, TotalWellness’ chief medical officer, said testing availability is starting to improve in rural areas, many of which have a lower percentage of vaccinated residents than do urban areas.
“It’s a public health priority right now to ensure that we have more robust testing, especially in those areas of the state where vaccination rates are lower,” said Safranek, a former Nebraska state epidemiologist.
Teresa Anderson, director of the Grand Island-based Central District Health Department, said last week that 1 in 4 tests in the health district had been coming back positive, indicating a lot of virus in the area and not enough testing.
“With this testing,” she said, “we’re hoping people will seek testing earlier and increase the number of people who are getting tested.”
The Grand Island site offers both rapid antigen and PCR tests, with a turnaround time of two days or less.
“We’ve needed those tests,” Anderson said. “We didn’t see that delta was emerging when Test Nebraska ended. Now, getting that back up is going to be really helpful.”
Von Lutz, clinical services supervisor with the Two Rivers Public Health Department, said the testing that has been available has been mostly through doctors’ offices and pharmacies. But a lot of those appointments have been filling quickly. Some residents don’t have a primary care provider to go to for testing.
Lutz has heard from residents who have made appointments to get tested and then received emails canceling the appointment because the provider didn’t have testing supplies. If they re-register, it can take a couple more days to get in, putting them four to six days out before getting tested.
Often, asymptomatic people haven’t been able to get tested. People seeking negative PCR tests for international travel also have been having a difficult time, because most doctor’s offices and clinics don’t perform tests for that purpose.
When Test Nebraska was running, he said, the health department had nine test sites open per week in its seven-county territory. It will launch its test site with TotalWellness on Monday and offer tests on Monday and Wednesday mornings.
Mark McCurdy, owner of Mark’s Pharmacy, said the business previously served as a provider for Test Nebraska.
Recently, officials with the McCook-based Southwest Public Health Department urged him to get back into testing. (Cambridge is about 25 miles east of McCook.) Residents who had been exposed to the virus but weren’t ill were showing up in emergency rooms to get tested, he said. McCurdy eventually hopes to offer testing in other communities.
“Now we’re trying to get back into that mode so people can come and get tested and know that we’ll be there,” he said.