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Virus test demand drops after initial blitz

Close-up of an array of test tubes in a laboratory

Gov. Doug Ducey has been coming up short on his promises to increase testing for COVID-19 statewide, and his “Project Catapult,” a plan to ramp up testing to 35,000 results per day before August, has failed to take flight.  

But Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ claimed the state is still on track to get to 60,000 tests per day by the end of August.

Christ at the July 30 press briefing also pushed back her promised deadline to clear out the 29,000 backlogged tests at Sonora Quest labs from July 31 to August 2, but the backlog has still not been fully cleared, at one point reaching 60,000 tests.

Ducey blamed private testing labs and a lack of demand for not being able to meet the goal, saying Sonora Quest needs to “step up their game” and deliver results faster, and the two testing sites that have two-day turnaround times haven’t hit capacity in the 12 days they were open. 

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey uses hand sanitizer after speaking about the latest Arizona coronavirus data at a news conference Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey uses hand sanitizer after speaking about the latest Arizona coronavirus data at a news conference Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

“There simply wasn’t the demand,” he said. 

The basic laws of supply and demand have hindered Ducey’s efforts to expand testing. After Ducey started imploring people to go get tested last month, the state was flooded with headlines about miles-long lines for drive-up testing sites, many of which were turning people away for lack of tests, and Ducey said the state was caught flat-footed by the incredible demand. Since then, the state has been flooded with headlines about the long turnaround time for tests, which have sometimes taken two weeks or more to provide results. 

Former Department of Health Services Director Will Humble said that turnaround times for tests are “terrible” and the Ducey administration’s inability to get test turnaround times down is “malfeasance” that is contributing to the lack of demand. 

“It’s super hot. Who… wants to go into the sun to get a test when they likely won’t get an answer for 2 weeks? That has to be part of [the lack of demand],” he said. “Turnaround times have just never been a priority for Cara. They have been bad for weeks now. When it became news, it became a priority.”

The state is processing roughly 12,790 tests a day in the three weeks since Ducey announced Project Catapult on July 9. Only twice in that time has the state exceeded 20,000 tests. 

Two months before launching Project Catapult, Ducey announced a “testing blitz” with the goal of testing 10,000 to 20,000 people per weekend. Although it fell short of the goal, DHS declared the blitz a success.

Now, the Governor’s Office has again been urging people to take advantage of testing options, sending out press releases offering to pre-register for tests as fewer people are taking advantage of them, possibly because of the long lag time between taking a test and receiving a result. Dave Dexter, the CEO of Sonora Quest, told 12 News it would shrink the lag time to under 48 hours by July 31, saying he “never really expected” this level of demand.

Ducey and Christ have also failed to test all prisoners in the state after making the promise to do so on May 12. To date, only about 15% of the entire prison population has received a diagnostic test. There are roughly 40,000 prisoners in Arizona. 

Christ said the state hasn’t made much progress because up until recently, the state was only testing those showing symptoms. Prisons started testing more inmates last week after dropping Sonora Quest as the contractor because the testing company is facing a backlog. 

Christ wouldn’t say if she thinks the current number of inmates tested to date is acceptable, but said she’s hopeful for future testing. 

“I think it’s a pretty good number that will continue to grow, but it does take a bit to get the staff out there to do the assessment [and get results],” she said. 

Christ said that the Dept of Health Services and Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry have been working closely to “develop a testing plan” and while she would not provide Capitol Times with a timeline, she said she would check with Director David Shinn to hopefully come up with one.

Ducey and Christ also promised to test everybody in long-term care facilities, and say they’ve reached that goal, although it’s impossible to verify that claim since the state doesn’t report those numbers separately and a court blocked news organizations’ attempts to access those records.

Yellow Sheet Report editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this story.

One comment

  1. I think there’s a factor being missed in why testing is below target. What’s the incentive for me, a citizen, to get tested? Testing doesn’t change symptoms, it doesn’t change whether I should stay home or wash my hands or wear a mask, and perhaps most importantly it doesn’t change treatment strategy or options. So, for me as a citizen, what’s the point?

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