BVA Development CEO Dr. Tommy Ahlquist and a coalition of other community leaders announced a new COVID-19 testing initiative yesterday. Crush the Curve Idaho intended to significantly increase testing for the novel coronavirus in the state.
While the initiative’s broad contours have been covered elsewhere, we wanted to dig into the details. We taped a quick podcast with Ahlquist and asked about the nitty-gritty of the process: who pays, where is the testing capacity coming from, how does this work and more.
Difference between Crush The Curve and other tests
Ahlquist said the coalition worked to secure lab capacity outside the normal channels. As of yesterday, the state says 11,898 tests have been administered total over the past four weeks.
Ahlquist said Crush the Curve Idaho will ramp up testing with 1,000 to 2,500 tests available per day. Many Idahoans say they’ve taken COVID-19 tests, but wait ten days or more for results. He said the tests are the same – but take a different route.
“The only difference in the test is they’ve got a backlog at the traditional labs they are using, and so you’re in a line,” Ahlquist said. “It’s the exact same test. It’s not a different test, it’s a different lab. A lab with the exact same equipment that’s FDA certified that has capacity.”
The test results will come back in as little as two days using the Crush the Curve Idaho network, Ahlquist said.
He said BVA and others worked to secure testing capacity outside major players like Quest, with a network of five to six labs with FDA and CMS approval.
More capacity, better knowledge
“If we in the private sector through another method can not mess with the tests that are already going on, and add 7,000 to 14,000 tests in Idaho to our database to actually know what the heck is going on, that is a very good thing,” he said. “I’m just waiting for someone to shoot a hole in this and tell us how it’s not a good thing.”
He said the extra capacity will help workers, employers and the other health systems.
“I tried to be careful here so we didn’t act like we were stepping on anyone’s shoes,” he said. “If you don’t have tests, you are going to be stricter with doling out the tests you do have,” referring to strict criteria for testing at hospitals across the state and nation.
But he expressed frustration at what he sees as a holdback of testing.
“What on God’s green earth does it do to help us as a state if we are holding tests in reserve that could be used to find out where we are at on this curve,” he asked rhetorically.
Boise Mayor Lauren McLean lauded the effort.
“At a time like this, we need people who are willing to innovate, take risks and partner,” McLean said. “Anything that seeks to increase the amount of testing is good and I’me excited they are willing to test this out.”
For someone to qualify for a CTC test, they go online to CrushTheCurveIdaho.com and take an online triage-style quiz.
If they need a test, they will get a call from one of two call centers. One will direct them to Saltzer Health locations, while another will serve medical centers in other parts of the state.
A patient would show up for a swab test, then get notified of the results once they run through the lab.
Impact on Business
Ahlquist said one of the main goals is to help keep essential businesses staffed. Scores of local restaurants and grocery and convenience stores have had an employee with COVID. Some closed down locations. Others have employees at home not working because they could have COVID-19 but testing hasn’t made a positive determination.
One of those businesses, Jacksons Food Stores, closed a location in Ontario temporarily after an employee had a confirmed case. Jacksons was an earlier tester of the CTC project.
“We are looking for the convenience store worker that works for Cory Jackson that has a cough or symptoms that are keeping them out of work and they need to know if they have it or not,” Ahlquist said. “(Jackson) has a percentage of his workforce staying home because they might have been exposed.”
Ahlquist said CTC ordered 100,000 antibody tests. These tests – using a blood draw – can tell a patient if they may have had COVID-19 and recovered. The tests are not online yet, but once they are, they can help people know if they’ve already been exposed. Research shows previously infected patients could have immunity.
“What’s being developed is a kit where you will walk into a clinic and put two drops of blood on a slide, and within ten minutes it will say positive or negative: do you have those antibodies or not?,” Ahlquist said.
“If we can test people and find out where we are on the curve, and if have literally hundreds of thousands of antibody tests — that is the pathway forward to getting our communities back up and running.”
The importance of testing
Ahlquist said the effort was borne out of frustration with the pace of testing. A similar effort in Utah inspired Crush the Curve Idaho. Ahlquist talked to that state’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox about how to do the same in Idaho. He outlined their concept, and Ahlquist said within ten hours he had tests secured.
“I’ve been just cold-calling people,” Ahlquist said. “I introduce myself and say ‘can you help us?,’ and they’ve all been really helpful.”
The effort is privately funded by a coalition of local business leaders. He hopes this will help people move forward.
“If they could have gotten a test, they would have known what to do with their grandmother – they would have known what to do with themself. They’re just like ‘I’ve been so paralyzed for weeks.’ We’re going to work closely with the state and the other healthcare companies. We’re really in this together.”
Disclosure: Saltzer Health is a BoiseDev advertiser. Neither Saltzer nor Ahlquist had any role in the selection or editorial process of this story.