Indiana’s COVID-19 testing capacity could fall short of prescribed back-to-college needs

On Wednesday, an Indiana State Department of Health spokesperson responded to a question about COVID-19 testing capacity in the state by telling The Square Beacon: “Indiana currently is experiencing a shortage of reagents, the materials used to analyze the specimens.”

That came in response to a question about any specific missing ingredients in COVID-19 testing supplies for the state—swabs, transport media, or reagents.

Not confirmed in the ISDH response was the idea that the reason for the shortage is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) diversion of supplies from Indiana to other states where surges in positive cases are even bigger than the increase that Indiana is showing.

Monroe County health administrator Penny Caudill told The Square Beacon that local health officials had not received details, but said the testing resources had been coming from FEMA.

A FEMA spokesperson responded to a query about diversion of supplies by saying, “States are allocated testing supplies according to what they have requested in swabs and transport media. For instance, the state of Indiana has been sent 504,000 swabs, and 376,000 in transport media.” The FEMA response didn’t mention reagents.

A kind of priority ranking problem was floated by the state’s health commissioner, Kris Box, at the regular press conference last week given by the governor and other top officials. “While we continue to increase our testing capacity, we’re having to adapt to the supply-and-demand issues that have been created by the significance spikes that we’ve seen in other states across the country,” Box said.

The issue is familiar from early stage of the pandemic, Box said, adding, “It has impacted our ability to get some supplies.” That has increased the wait time for lab results, according to Box.

Box called the issue “external factors that are beyond our control” but said ” we have become skilled at adapting to them.”

The state’s overall testing capacity is a pressing issue, as several of the state’s public universities are requiring returning students to be tested inside a 10-day window before arriving on campus in the fall.

In 2019, the total headcount of all in-state higher-ed students, was about 187,000. Of those, 60,000 were enrolled at two-year institutions. The other 127,000 were enrolled in four-year institutions.

The most COVID-19 tests that have have been run in a single day so fair in the entire state was 11,513 on July 13.

In 2019, the headcount of in-state students at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus was about 22,000. Not all in-state students at all public institutions will be required to be tested.

Since last Friday, Indiana University director of media relations Chuck Carney told The Square Beacon, the COVID-19 test requirement for returning IU students has been revised. It now applies only to students who will be living on campus or in Greek houses.

About the testing capacity issue, Carney said, “[W]e are cognizant of concerns raised by the state health department and adjusted our testing requirement so as to not overburden our system and allay potential concerns.”

What IU and other institutions are requiring is mass testing of people who are not symptomatic. An ISDH spokesperson said, “Some universities have indicated they are doing pre-arrival screening using resources outside the state, which does not impact the state’s ability to test symptomatic individuals and close contacts in a timely fashion.”

But the spokesperson added, “In general, ISDH has not recommended mass testing of asymptomatic individuals when there is no evidence of exposure, because it is a snapshot in time, and a negative test result today does not mean that individual will not test positive tomorrow.”

That squares up with Monroe County health administrator Penny Caudill’s remarks at last Friday’s regular weekly press conference of local officials, when she said: “We don’t want to be using those resources to test people that aren’t infected, or aren’t changing behaviors. We want to change behaviors. Testing is not prevention.”

According to a FEMA spokesperson, state governments are able to purchase COVID-19 testing supplies on the private market. And registered public health labs can also get testing supplies at no cost through the International Reagent Resource.

The FEMA spokesperson also said all states have received funding issued from the Patient Protection and Health Care Enhancement Act to help pay for their COVID-19 testing plans.

According to FEMA’s information, Indiana received about $11.5 million for lab capacity through the CARES Act and another $183 million for lab capacity through the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.

About the state’s efforts to increase testing capacity, an ISDH spokesperson said, “Testing capacity in Indiana has expanded significantly since March 30 through a partnership with Eli Lilly and the addition of other private laboratories, as well as the addition of ISDH-run testing sites.”

According to ISDH, there are currently more than 200 testing sites available in Indiana, including more than 30 run by OptumServe, which has been contracted by the state to do COVID-19 testing in the state. One of the OptumServe test sites is in Bloomington. 

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