RACINE COUNTY — Wisconsin health systems and the state’s local public health organizations are starting to get fewer COVID-19 testing supplies. It’s not because of any fault within the state, but because the federal government is intentionally shifting the supply chain.
As a result, Wisconsinites’ access to testing has fallen over the past week. Some fear the lack of access could continue for weeks to come, reducing local health officials’ ability to track the current status of the pandemic in their areas.
The shifts have already made a negative impact on testing on both ends of Racine County.
This week, Advocate Aurora Health sent a letter to community leaders in southeastern Wisconsin — including in Burlington and in Racine — informing them that “the federal government has redirected supplies to national COVID-19 ‘hot spots’ ... with high volumes of cases.”
While some states, particularly in the northeast, have seen per-capita positive test rates drop or plateau in recent weeks, new highs have been reached in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho and Tennessee in the past two weeks.
The “activity level” of the coronavirus is considered to be “high” in 66 out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties over the past two weeks. Zero have a “low activity level,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
More reagent needed
The primary resource Wisconsin has been missing out on has been the chemical reagent necessary to execute tests.
“A number of our labs … are having challenges with getting adequate reagent,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk confirmed Friday.
The drop has somewhat perplexed state leaders. Willems Van Dijk said that it “appears” deliveries of reagents that were previously coming to Wisconsin “are now being diverted to other places in the nation.”
No supplies already in the state are being ordered to be sent elsewhere. There’s just less supply coming in from manufacturers.
Part of the reason Wisconsin is losing out in this scenario is because Wisconsinites have done a better job of avoiding mass outbreaks compared to other states, according to state leaders.
Citing White House data, Willems Van Dijk said “We are doing better than the nation as a whole. We are doing better than other states in our Midwest region,” while noting that local labs and manufacturers have helped keep Wisconsin above water by producing testing supplies on their own.
Still, Willems Van Dijk said “We are hoping the testing supply chain will open up soon.”
Local impact of lost resources
This redirection of supplies has made it so that Aurora has had to drastically reduce its community testing capability. Rather than having testing sites across the state, Aurora said it is only able to perform community testing at one site: Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee.
“Like many providers nationally, we have been forced to adjust our COVID-19 testing approach as testing supplies continue to be constrained and we experience a delay in anticipated shipments. This situation remains fluid across the country and at Advocate Aurora Health, and we continue our relentless efforts to secure more testing supplies,” Advocate Aurora Health said in a statement.
In the City of Racine, community testing has already been rolled back because of the federal redirections of supplies. The National Guard was supposed to perform 1,500 tests on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week at Festival Hall in Downtown Racine. But the lack of supply availability forced Thursday’s testing to be canceled since a maximum of only 1,000 tests could have been completed.
The Guard is supposed to be back at Festival Hall from Aug. 18-20 to perform free-to-the-public community testing, but there’s a chance that could be shortened (again) or outright canceled if supplies keep dropping, City Spokesman Shannon Powell confirmed to The Journal Times.
Community testing, of people who are both symptomatic and asymptomatic for the coronavirus, is considered essential to combatting the virus since widespread testing is the only real way to know how present the novel coronavirus is (or isn’t) in a given community.
“Testing remains key to boxing in this disease and reducing transmission, so community partners are continuing to work together to develop a long-term testing strategy,” Mark Schaaf, Racine County’s communications director, said in an email.
Although there has been discernible improvement since March and April when it was nearly impossible for members of the public to get tested even if they were experiencing COVID symptoms, this negative turnaround highlights how precarious the U.S. still appears to be in its COVID-related supplies.
Changes for surgery patients
Aurora has also said it will not be testing everyone who is getting a surgery as it has been previously, leading to concerns that not enough precautions are being taken to keep the public, patients and medical professionals safe from the virus that has killed 157,600 Americans and 990 people in Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DHS.
Ascension Health — which operates Racine County’s largest hospital, Ascension All Saints, 3801 Spring St. — is still able to test all of its patients going into surgery. In a statement, Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Greg Brusko said that Ascension Wisconsin “is not experiencing a shortage of COVID-19 testing supplies” but still said that there has been “supply disruption in recent weeks.”
As of Thursday, Ascension has not had to close any of its 20 mobile testing sites across Wisconsin despite the supply chain turbulence.
Ascension, which is based in St. Louis, and Advocate Aurora, based in Milwaukee, are the two biggest medical systems in Wisconsin. According to the American Hospital Directory, Ascension operates 13 hospitals/medical centers in Wisconsin; Advocate Aurora operates 15.
Lab capacity still in good shape
While this goes on, the state’s ability to actually perform tests — i.e. taking samples into the lab to see if they come back positive for coronavirus — has consistently been rising. As of Friday, 83 labs across Wisconsin were able to test up to 24,156 samples per day. However, the state has only completed 15,000 tests in a day a couple times so far this year, showing that laboratories could handle greater numbers of test samples.
However, Stephanie Smiley, the interim administrator for DHS’s Division of Public Health, noted that sometimes Wisconsinites’ tests are sent to laboratories out of state, meaning that the number of tests that can actually be performed can be greater that Wisconsin’s own capabilities.
“Our growth in lab capacity … is very good,” Willems Van Dijk said, “but that testing capacity is also matched by the growth in actual tests administered and that’s why it’s so important that we continue to grow that lab capacity, so that we can meet the growing demand for tests in our state.”
The first day of free coronavirus testing at Festival Hall, in photos
Waiting on foot and on scooter
Waiting in cars
Walking to the testing site
Ready to roll
Racinians tell us why they wanted to get tested for coronavirus
Drive-up and walk-up
Waiting to be tested
Curtis Walls gets tested
Test in vehicle
Foggy testing site
Mayor Mason in a mask
“Testing remains key to boxing in this disease and reducing transmission, so community partners are continuing to work together to develop a long-term testing strategy.” Mark Schaaf, Racine County’s communications director