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Free COVID-19 testing site to open in Tucson
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Free COVID-19 testing site to open in Tucson

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Elliot Truslow got a coronavirus test at CVS on June 15, just six days after breaking a strict quarantine routine to attend the Celebration for Black Lives on the University of Arizona campus mall.

Twenty-six days later, the UA graduate student has not gotten results.

The decision to seek out a diagnostic test was a precautionary one for Truslow, who had a slight cough, some congestion and minor chest tightness. All the symptoms associated with Truslow’s asthma.

But Truslow was encouraged to make sure at the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommended those who attended protests get tested after potentially being exposed in the crowds.

“I think that the process and the availability was great. But what does testing availability mean without the availability of results?” Truslow said.

At least one answer to the question is coming in the form of a two-pronged approach by Pima County, which has expanded the county’s contact tracing operation and is opening the county’s first free community-testing site at Kino Event Center on Monday, July 13. The goal: test 1,000 people a day.

The moves come as Arizona has cemented its status as one of the world’s worst spots for the coronavirus outbreak. That has increased demand for testing as a total of 14,729 received coronavirus tests in Pima County during the week of June 21-27, a 14.7% increase from the week before. That total was 10,281 during last week, although the week included the July 4 holiday, while some results can take seven to 10 days to be reported by the state.

It’s ultimately resulted in ongoing problems, which officials said have made it difficult to do things like identify people who have been exposed and need to quarantine.

Waiting for results a “terrible” situation

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry called situations like that of Truslow “terrible.”

“If they’re waiting 26 days and they were in fact infected, they’re now probably over it and not shedding the virus. But you don’t know how many places they were and how many people they infected,” he said in general.

County officials are hoping the testing site and contact tracing expansion will allow them to test, identify positive cases, notify patients and trace those who may have been infected, all within 24 to 48 hours .

“The more timely we are, the better it improves the chances of isolating the infected person and reducing the number of infected people,” he said. “It’s probably the most important thing to do.”

Huckelberry said even though Pima County has just surpassed the 100,000-mark for total number of tests, local health officials said that the number should be at least double or triple.

Huckelberry estimates the tests will cost the county about $150 to $250 per test.

“We’re going to take people at their word to where they think they might have been exposed they can get a test,” he said. “We need regional testing. We need a lot more testing. … Given the increasing cases that do not appear to be abating, it’s very important to accelerate testing and make it communitywide.”

Help is on the way

The expansion of the county’s contact tracing operation came from a recent $10 million, six-month agreement with Maximus Health Services to initially hire as many as 150 additional people to identify people who may have been affected by the virus. Their work is already underway.

“One of the key components of our response to this outbreak that has been difficult to ramp us has been the hours and hours of people power it takes to do this type of work and the systems it takes to support that staff,” Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to being able to quickly take advantage of the experience, capacity, and planning Maximus will be able to provide.”

Even more help could be on the way. The city of Tucson has been aiming to launch its own public testing program, and is still hoping to do that in the next couple weeks.

The council had voted to spend a maximum of $3 million on a testing program, first for employees and eventually the public. They partnered with El Rio Health to test employees and have done 274 tests so far. They’re hoping to finalize details for a contract with a lab to do the public process in the next few days.

“We are currently preparing to issue a testing contract to expand our capabilities. We are very close to launching the next phase of the program which will bring free testing to the Tucson community,” city manager Michael Ortega’s office said in a statement.

Councilman Paul Cunningham, who led the push for the city’s effort, said that one of the issues is they’re trying not to duplicate the county’s efforts but that he’s optimistic those details will be hammered out in the near future.

“If I have coronavirus, I have coronavirus”

“I think the bigger task has been to ensure we are properly collaborating with the county, the university and our local health-care providers so we don’t duplicate efforts and maximize resources,” he said. “This is a constantly evolving situation that changes every day.”

Huckelberry said that the city’s efforts are more than welcome.

“We’re fine with however they want to do it. The more testing the better,” he said.

For Truslow, the additional testing is encouraging. But the lack of results remains frustrating.

Truslow has emailed and tweeted with CVS and Quest Diagnostics, the lab that was incorrectly listed as being responsible analyzing the results. Truslow suspects the testing sample was lost.

In a statement, a CVS spokeswoman said CVS is looking into the matter and will follow up with Truslow.

“The increase in cases of COVID-19 in certain areas of the country is causing extremely high demand for tests across the board. This has caused backlogs for our lab partners and is delaying their processing of patient samples. Currently, due to these factors, it may take at least five to seven days for people to receive their results. Our lab partners are working hard to address this issue.”

A Quest Diagnostics spokeswoman said Friday the sample was analyzed by another partner lab.

“I’m frustrated but I know if I have coronavirus, I have coronavirus,” said Truslow, whose condition has not worsened. “The test is just going to legitimize that.”

“If I’m going to develop it and get sick, my body is going to tell me that. I’ll just continue to stay home and keep myself and other people safe by not being in the company of other people.”

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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