Diane Wylie, a medical technologist at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire, conducts a COVID-19 test.
Diane Wylie, a medical technologist at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire, conducts a COVID-19 test recently. Marshfield Clinic Health System is among health care providers in Wisconsin that are increasing testing to boost the state’s capacity toward a goal of about 12,000 tests per day. (Photo courtesy of Marshfield Clinic Health System)

State lab capacity is where it needs to be, but supplies are still slow in coming

Even as Wisconsin public health officials stress the urgency of increasing COVID-19 testing efforts, the number of tests administered across the state continues to lag expectations and has even decreased in some regions. 

On Wednesday Gov. Tony Evers said all state residents who need to be tested for the virus should be able to do so. But figures provided by the state Department of Health Services show that is not yet happening.   

In fact, despite a push to increase testing, those numbers have remained relatively flat in recent days and dropped in some areas.

Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said the state has boosted capacity to test 11,000 people daily in Wisconsin, increasing the number of testing labs in the past three weeks from 15 to 50.  

However, during the past week, the actual number of tests administered daily in Wisconsin has averaged between about 1,500 and 3,500, far below capacity. 

“Absolutely we need to increase testing so we have a better understanding of how many cases of COVID-19 we have,” Palm said Wednesday. “We need to expand the options and the ways that people can get tested.”

Boosting the number of people tested is a critical part of Evers’ plan for a phased-in reopening of businesses and other activities from the “Safer at Home” order he issued on March 25 and has extended until May 26. 

More tests will reveal how many state residents have the virus, information that would help Evers and public health officials determine when it is safe to lift the order. Evers has said he doesn’t plan to reopen the state until COVID-19 tests show a decline over a 14-day period.

While they back increased testing, public health officials across Wisconsin said multiple factors stand in the way of raising that number. Chief among them is a lack of materials to actually conduct tests, they said.

Reagents are the main ingredients necessary to run COVID-19 tests and are in short supply across the state and nation, officials said. As testing demand for them increases, the supply can’t keep up, they said, in part because of limited production capacity in a market with only a handful of producers. 

The nasal swabs used to collect material from people tested also are in short supply, sources at test sites across Wisconsin said. In some cases those working at test sites report having only a handful of swabs at times.

In addition, test site workers said, the number of vials used to store swabs sent to the lab also is inadequate, reducing test capacity. 

Increase needed

Polk County Health Department Director Brian Kaczmarski said supplies have been lacking at test sites across northwest Wisconsin. In many parts of the state, especially rural areas, not enough tests have been done to adequately determine how many people may be infected by COVID-19, he said. 

“We are working to increase testing,” Kaczmarski said, “but it is a struggle because we simply don’t have enough test supplies available.”

In Eau Claire County, testing has averaged 40 to 60 people per day, far fewer than the number City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese would like to see, she said, noting that figure has actually decreased in recent days. 

“There are some real issues (with testing) we need to approach,” she said, noting shortages of materials hinder testing efforts across the state. 

To raise that number, Eau Claire officials and others in northwest Wisconsin are discussing a plan to bring the National Guard to the area for a series of drive-through testing efforts. Palm said her department is working to facilitate those efforts.

John Gardner, director of communications for Marshfield Clinic Health System, said the lack of testing supplies in Wisconsin and nationwide have “become a systemic barrier to expanding testing.”

Evers has called on President Donald Trump to release more test kits and materials from the National Strategic Stockpile to Wisconsin to enable more testing to occur in Wisconsin. At the federal level, last week U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee wrote a letter to Trump saying more testing is necessary to better gauge the extent of coronavirus’ spread before Evers’ “Safer at Home” order can be lifted. 

Trump has said he is sending more test kits across the U.S., but many working at Wisconsin test locations said they have yet to see those materials. 

Without enough materials to conduct tests, those administering them said they are forced to purchase them directly from private suppliers. But the supply falls short of demand, they said, especially amid efforts to significantly boost testing.

To address the need for more testing, Palm said, the state has partnered with providers such as Exact Sciences, which will process 20,000 tests weekly, and Marshfield Clinic which will conduct another 10,000. 

But she acknowledged testing hurdles, noting the need for a consistent federal government effort to provide test kits. Because of shortages at test sites, Wisconsin “continues to compete with other states” to purchase testing materials. 

“Our ability to test is hindered by that,” she said of the lack of federal government support for testing materials. “We would like to see improvement there.”