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'This Changes Everything' — Mills Announces Plan To Triple Maine's COVID-19 Testing Capacity

Robert F. Bukaty
Gov. Janet Mills, and Dr. Nirav Shah, right, during a news conference on the coronavirus at the State House, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday announced a new partnership with a subsidiary of IDEXX Laboratories of Westbrook that could triple the state’s testing capacity for Covid-19. The announcement, teased last week by Maine Center for Disease Control director Dr. Nirav Shah, was touted by the administration as a significant boost to a state testing regime that has been hobbled by national shortage of testing supplies and little assistance from the federal government. It may also lead to significant changes to the governor's phased plan to restart the Maine economy.

Public health experts say expansive testing for the virus is a key component to efforts to swap widespread shutdowns with more targeted efforts to contain outbreaks.

If the new partnership with the veterinary diagnostics company IDEXX indeed triples Maine's testing capacity as promised, it could have a significant impact on the governor's plan to get the state economy off its knees to least an upright position.

“This changes everything,” Mills said in a written statement. “Acquiring this testing capacity is a major breakthrough for all the people of Maine.”

By everything, Mills means not only a tripling in the number of tests, but potentially a future scenario in which any resident who wants a test can get one.

Mills said her administration had been working with IDEXX over the last month. Jay Mazelsky, president and CEO of IDEXX, said the Maine partnership is core to its mission of assisting government with infectious disease management.

The partnership was unveiled the same day that IDEXX subsidiary OPTI Medical Systems announced it had received emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a diagnostic test that the company says provides results in a few hours.

Dr. Hayley Webber, technical director of molecular diagnostics at NorDX Laboratories in Scarborough, said in a statement that the new tests should be easy to implement.

“The test has an easy workflow with simple pipetting steps, making high throughput testing easy for medical technologists to perform,” Webber said in a statement. “This minimizes errors and allows for effortless scalability.”

Currently the Maine CDC says it has the ability to perform about 2,000 tests per week, well short of what public health experts say is needed to track the virus and deploy more targeted containment strategies. The Mills administration says the partnership will allow Maine to triple its current capacity.

The Mills administration said IDEXX will loan the Maine CDC a testing instrument to help accommodate higher test volumes. The company will also donate 3,500 tests.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew says the agreement is worth an estimated $720,000 and will be paid with funds from the Coronavirus Relief Fund recently enacted by Congress.

"So it was a 100 percent federal funding," Lambrew says.

Ever since recording its first case of COVID-19 in mid-March, Shah’s agency has been dogged by testing capacity. It currently processes tests based on a tiered system: Tier 1 is for high-risk individuals, such as those who are hospitalized, health care workers, and first responders; Tier 2 is for people older than 60 and those with underlying health conditions.

Early in the Maine outbreak, the state CDC had a backlog of more 1,000 tests because of a shortage in supplies. While physicians have been allowed to order a test for anyone they suspect of having covid-19, there have been widespread reports of patients unable to get tested or results delayed for days, sometimes weeks.

Shah told Maine Public Radio in April that the goal of Maine’s testing strategy is to offer more tests, to more people.  

“Ideally, we'd like to move toward getting rid of those focus areas, and just throw our doors open to be able to allow testing for any doctor who wishes to send it to us,” he said. “That's our plan, we'd like to move in that direction. But before we can throw open our doors in that manner, we've got to make sure that we've got this predictable supply of the chemicals that we need, or otherwise we could throw our doors open and not actually be able to run tests and end up with a backlog.”

Mills says honed responses could soon mean significant changes to a phased reopening plan that's been criticized for being too slow and punishing for businesses in rural parts of the state thought to be less affected by COVID-19.

"As a result of the new testing capacity, we do expect to update the plan to restart Maine's economy very soon," she said.

Shah, in a written statement, called the partnership a “game changer” that will allow the state to eliminate the tiered system currently in place.

“It will allow us to move to a next level of testing that is crucial to monitoring the public health implications of a phased reopening of Maine businesses and gathering places,” Shah said.

He said the CDC will begin testing the new instrument immediately with the hopes of deploying it by the end of next week.

Once in place, the CDC says it doctors will be able to test anyone suspected of having covid-19 and also people who have had “significant, close contact” with a person with the virus.

The administration says it will continue efforts to expand testing.

If the state’s testing partnership delivers as promised, it would appear to put Maine on track to meet the minimum testing levels recently recommended by the Harvard Global Institute, which recommends that Maine have the ability to perform 1,800 tests a day by May 15.

Updated 4:57 p.m. May 7, 2020