TestIowa was supposed to be the answer to COVID-19 — the necessary tool to enable Gov. Kim Reynolds to open the state again. She rushed into the contract with Nomi Health, a tech startup out of Utah with no health care experience, bypassing a formal bid process, because Ashton Kutcher recommended it to her.
TestIowa was supposed to be up and running within days and would process 3,000 test per day, Reynolds promised. But one week into the process, the testing machines provided by Nomi Health aren’t working. Confirmed reports out of the State Hygienic Lab reveal that Nomi Health testing machines aren’t passing their controls and the tests aren’t able to be validated. Because of this, SHL has had to bypass the Nomi Health machines and use SHL machines in order to process the growing backlog of COVID-19 tests. Additionally, the lab supplies and equipment promised by Nomi Health are running low. Without the machines and equipment promised by Nomi Health, the process is slow and the backlog is growing. Compounding Iowa’s already growing COVID-19 crisis. On April 25, MSN analysis of COVID-19 data found that Iowa was the state with the fasting growing number of cases. According to the New York Times, two of the top ten places that have seen the highest per capita rates of infection are in Sioux City and Waterloo. And the numbers are growing.
In an emailed statement through University of Iowa communications director Stephen Pradarelli, SHL Director Mike Pentella stated: “Any new test protocol requires time to set up and calibrate the equipment, gather testing supplies, train staff, and put in place the chain of support needed to collect, record, and process specimens and report out results. The State Hygienic Lab has been working closely with the test manufacturer and state officials to get the TestIowa process up and running as soon as possible, in what are clearly unprecedented circumstances.”
The reality is far from what was promised. At an April 21 news conference, Reynolds stated that the TestIowa test results would be reported in 42 to 78 hours and processed at 3,000 per day. At a news conference on April 30, Reynolds referred to a three-day backlog. But if the first round of TestIowa tests were collected on April 24 and haven’t been fully processed that’s a delay of nearly a week. The Des Moines Register reported that people who were tested through the first TestIowa drive-thru location on April 24 still haven’t received their results.
To help with the backlog, multiple reports say tests are being shipped to another lab to help with the load, but as test kits from TestIowa, area hospitals and food processing plants roll in, SHL employees have little time to catch up with the overwhelming demand and the delay in results means that the COVID-19 data Reynolds is using to justify opening the state isn’t fully accurate.
And then there is concerns about the tests themselves. Journalists at the Salt Lake Tribune discovered concerns with the TestUtah COVID-19 tests, which are the same tests being used in Iowa. In Utah, the TestUtah tests are reporting more negatives than other state-administered tests, raising concerns about false negatives. The Tribune reported, “The reason for the discrepancy between TestUtah sites and others is unclear, but health officials and doctors have expressed concern over the testing practices at TestUtah locations and the sensitivity of the test being used.”
When asked about the Tribune’s report at a news conference on April 30, Reynolds answered, “We are validating the process of validating the process,” dismissing the concerns out of hand.
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In an interview on April 24, I asked Mark Newman, the CEO of Nomi Health, if he was worried that his company’s inexperience providing testing on a scale this large could lead to widespread problems.
“There will always be hiccups,” he said. “In many situations, there will always be fires but we are committed to being the best firefighter team in a sense because every state has nuances and differences.”
When I pointed out that in health care a “hiccup” could lead to death, he said he took that reality very seriously. A week later, when I reached out to Newman with questions about the problems with TestIowa, he refused to answer.
The state of Iowa signed a $26 million contract with Nomi Health.
In her news conference on May 1, Gov. Reynolds said that there was no problem with TestIowa, saying that the backlog is just a normal part of validating the machines and data entry. But she did note that the tests were being processed with the SHL machines. No mention of the TestIowa machines.
Meanwhile, the narrative coming out of the lab is very different from the one being spun at the governor’s podium — it’s one of frustration, overwork and concern, where the promised equipment is failing to function and people’s lives are at stake.
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