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Iowa details $26M plan to boost testing as virus cases surge

April 21, 2020 GMT
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, Monday, April 20, 2020. Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday that Iowa's meatpacking plants will stay open and continue to spread the coronavirus among workers, warning that shutting them down would be devastating for farmers and the food supply. (Olivia Sun/The Des Moines Register via AP )
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, Monday, April 20, 2020. Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday that Iowa's meatpacking plants will stay open and continue to spread the coronavirus among workers, warning that shutting them down would be devastating for farmers and the food supply. (Olivia Sun/The Des Moines Register via AP )

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa launched a $26 million program Tuesday to increase its lagging capacity to test for the coronavirus as the number of residents known to be infected continued to skyrocket.

Gov. Kim Reynolds led a social media campaign urging everyone to voluntarily complete a health assessment at TestIowa.com. Those who have symptoms, have been exposed to the coronavirus or have traveled to hot spots will soon be eligible for free drive-thru tests. Those who are positive will be asked to share recent contacts and travel so the state can alert those potentially exposed.

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The state signed a $26 million contract to purchase 540,000 tests over the next six months from Nomi Health, a Utah-based startup. The governor’s office said the cost, $48 per test, is in line with commercial rates and would be paid for with federal funds.

Nomi Health and its subcontractors will run the website and mobile testing sites. When fully running in coming weeks, the program aims to increase the state’s testing capability by 3,000 tests per day.

Iowa currently completes 1,000 to 2,000 tests daily. More than 27,000 residents have been tested since the beginning of the pandemic, about 1 of every 113 residents. Studies have shown Iowa’s per capita rate in the bottom half of the states.

Tests have been limited to hospital patients, people with symptoms and underlying medical conditions who are over 60, those who live in large residential facilities, and health care and other essential workers.

Despite the limits on who can get tested, Iowa’s confirmed cases have dramatically increased, partially due to outbreaks at meatpacking plants that have infected hundreds of workers.

State data released Tuesday shows 482 more people have contracted COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, and four more have died. The tally of new cases was a one-day record, equaling roughly the number of cases in Iowa just three weeks ago. The influx boosted Iowa’s total to 3,649.

Hardest hit was Black Hawk County, which reported 107 new infections that local officials say are largely tied to a Tyson Foods pork plant. The county Board of Health approved a statement Tuesday urging the company and governor to temporarily close the plant, warning that its continued operation “will exacerbate — rapidly — the infection of its employees, their households, and the communities in which they reside.”

Tyson said Tuesday that it was monitoring the situation with worker safety in mind.

The governor said Monday that the plant, which can process 20,000 hogs a day, is critical to the nation’s pork supply and will remain open. Asked why she was willing to risk workers’ health, Reynolds said Tuesday that most Americans will get the coronavirus eventually and that the majority will only experience mild or no symptoms.

The Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has faced criticism for failing to protect workers during the pandemic, said Tuesday it has begun an investigation at the Waterloo plant.

TestIowa is based on a program launched weeks ago in Utah, which also has roughly 3.2 million residents.

The governor framed it as a way to “crush the curve” and hasten the reopening of the economy. She said it was critical for even healthy people to complete the assessment so the state can decide where to make tests available.

The website acknowledges that its request for personal contact and health information “may be uncomfortable and concerning to some.” But it promises that data will not be shared with the companies and will be used only to fight the pandemic.

Reynolds said the first drive-thru testing site will open Saturday at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, and others will open next week.