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'Priority' COVID-19 Testing Can Still Mean Long Waits For Results


A Kalispell assisted-living facility breathed a small sigh of relief Wednesday when its residents’ COVID-19 tests came back negative. Those results took more than a week to return.

Initial tests were given high priority by the state lab, and a state health official says this kind of delay in results is uncommon.

A female resident’s positive test result triggered Immanuel Lutheran's first round of testing in late July. Despite a “Priority 1” label assigning the state health department’s fastest turnaround, it took 9 days for the results of 245 residents and staff at its Buffalo Hills Terrace apartment complex to come back.

It took five days to get results from a second round of tests, according to a spokesperson for Immanuel Lutheran.

The state prioritizes testing for those showing COVID-19 symptoms, those with close contacts with known cases, and for investigations into potential outbreaks.

Jim Murphy is the chief of the Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Communicable Disease Bureau. He said the state lab’s turnaround for high-priority tests is about two to three days, but added the lab doesn’t always have the capacity to run every high-priority test.

“That’s when a decision will be made to maybe send some of the samples out to our partner, and depending on the day of the week that these things arrive, that can make a difference,” Murphy said.

The state sends tests to MAKO Medical in North Carolina when it doesn’t have enough capacity, he said. That turnaround averages four to five days, but can take longer – as it did in Immanuel Lutheran’s case. State officials said MAKO can run about 1,000 tests a day.

By the end of the week, Montana State University will be able to run up to 500 tests daily according to Murphy. He added Kalispell Regional Healthcare, Bozeman Health and Billings Clinic are all working to build up similar testing capacity.

Montana has seen outbreaks of COVID-19 at assisted living facilities in Toole and Yellowstone counties. The state’s current testing strategy emphasizes monitoring and surveillance testing of health care workers, long-term care centers and group homes like Buffalo Hills Terrace.

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