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WSU begins analyzing COVID-19 samples as testing supplies run short and results lag

Spokane Regional Health District and volunteer nurses conduct curbside COVID-19 testing Tuesday in the parking lot at Holmes Elementary School  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jim Camden and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Washington State University will begin analyzing samples for the COVID-19 virus in Pullman at its animal disease diagnostic laboratory, which has expanded to accommodate the work.

The Washington State Department of Health initially reached out to the university to bring additional testing analysis online, with a focus on increasing capacity in Eastern Washington.

The animal disease diagnostic lab is the perfect place to analyze COVID-19 samples due to its surge capacity, said Guy Palmer, WSU professor of pathology and infectious diseases.

“The idea was: Can we take this surge capacity and apply it to not animal specimens but human specimens?” he said.

The answer to that question is now “yes,” and the WSU One Health Diagnostics lab should be able to process up to 2,000 samples per day in the coming weeks.

WSU formed a public-private partnership with Incyte Diagnostics, based in the Spokane area, which will collect samples from patients, label them and send them to Pullman for analysis. The turnaround time could be as quick as one to two days, Palmer said. Incyte, not WSU, will collect samples from patients as well as inform them of their results, meaning no one should line up in Pullman parking lots for COVID-19 tests soon.

The animal diagnostic laboratory has not slowed down at all, Palmer said, and the university has hired more personnel to help process COVID-19 tests, which will be analyzed in a separate part of the lab from the animal specimens.

The lab expansion and increased testing capacity in Pullman couldn’t come at a better time, as existing private laboratories are struggling to process samples quickly enough to keep up with the increase in testing taking place not only in Washington but across the country.

“We’re there to try to extend the capacity to the greatest degree we can,” Palmer said. “And I think we now have a pretty good idea that the need for testing is going to continue for the foreseeable future.”

In another effort to expand access to testing, the Spokane Regional Health District began curbside testing at Holmes Elementary school free of charge on Tuesday. Testing is available there on Wednesday and Thursday on a first-come, first-serve basis from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Gov. Jay Inslee addressed testing shortfalls during a Tuesday news conference .

Inslee blamed testing delays on the failure of the federal government to provide adequate supplies for test kits. Some kits that did arrive were mismatched, mislabeled or improperly packaged. There’s also a recent “choke point” at the labs even when kits are available, he said.

“It’s because governors in Southern states listened to Donald Trump and they opened their businesses way too fast and they let thousands of people rush into bars and they’ve got massive surges in pandemics,” he said. “As a result, they put pressure on the analytical labs to get all this testing done.”

Dr. Kathy Lofy, state health officer, said the state is working with two laboratories in Eastern Washington to increase testing capacity. She also urged people not to be discouraged from seeking a test if they suspect they may have COVID-19.

“Anybody who has any symptoms should be tested,” Lofy said.

Despite the problems and delays in testing results, Inslee said a person should isolate as soon as they’ve been exposed, and remain in isolation for 14 days or until they test negative.

“If you have been exposed to a person who is positive and if you have sought a test, do not wait for the test results to make a decision that can save lives,” Inslee said. “We need to isolate ourselves for at least 14 days, or at least until we get that test result.”

More testing has been a part, but not all, of a recent rise in confirmed cases in the state and in Spokane County.

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 51 new cases on Tuesday and the death of a man in his 70s from the virus.

The number of county residents hospitalized as a result of the virus also rose to 23, with 13 other people receiving treatment in local hospitals.

There have been 1,788 cases confirmed in Spokane County.

A resident of the Touchmark retirement community on the South Hill is among those who have tested positive for the virus, the facility confirmed on Tuesday.

The resident lives in the independent living neighborhood within the main building, and they are isolating at home. The facility closed all of its dining rooms, its hair salon and its common areas in response. Residents have been asked to remain in their homes, a statement from the executive director says.

More intensive care neighborhoods at Touchmark had received meals at their homes for a few months, and now independent living residents will as well. Touchmark is making arrangements to test staff and residents.

As the state works to combat the virus’ spread, Inslee appeared at the Tuesday news conference I in a mask with Seattle Mariners logo that occasionally seemed to be causing his glasses to fog up.

Asked if he would allow the Mariners to play games in Seattle if the area isn’t at a reopening phase that would allow that type of activity even without fans in the stadium, he replied: “I don’t think we’ve made those decisions.”

Speaking on the day his mandate requiring for masks be worn in businesses, Inslee said wearing masks, social distancing, isolation after possible exposure and contact tracing are the tools for reopening the economy.

There are some early indications the strategy has been successful in decreasing the spread of the virus in Yakima, one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

The mandate will be enforced primarily by businesses refusing to serve people who aren’t wearing masks, Inslee said.

“Employees simply don’t ring up the sale” for a person without a mask, he said. “We’re not asking for people to get in any physical confrontation.”

People who have a medical reason why they can’t wear a mask can simply tell the clerk that and “they will accept that self-declaration,” Inslee added.

On the day the statewide mandate went into effect, the Freedom Foundation, a conservative organization, announced it was filing a lawsuit questioning the state’s authority to issue such an order.

“The face covering directive is the definition of government overreach,” Aaron Withe, the foundation’s national director, said in a news release.

Inslee countered that he believes the state is acting legally but anyone “who wants to waste their money” can go to court to challenge his orders. Several groups have already, but no court has agreed to halt one so far.

The state has a responsibility to protect its residents, Inslee said.

“There is nothing in the Constitution that says people should die of a virus,” he said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.