Ricketts pushes back on criticism of TestNebraska contract

TestNebraska produced 2,358 test results last week — well short short of projected 3,000 per day that’s expected by the end of the month, when the ramp-up period is supposed to end.
Ricketts Ap Photo

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts pushed back Monday against four Nebraska lawmakers who urged him to cancel a $27 million coronavirus testing contract with a group of out-of-state startup companies, calling their criticism “ludicrous” even though the program is off to a slow start and hasn’t kept up with demand.

Ricketts defended the state’s agreement with Utah-based Nomi Health and its partnering companies but acknowledged some early problems with the TestNebraska program. The same companies have similar no-bid contracts with Iowa and Utah that have come under scrutiny as states scramble to conduct more tests.

TestNebraska produced 2,358 test results last week — well short short of projected 3,000 per day that’s expected by the end of the month, when the ramp-up period is supposed to end.

The senators — all Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature — sent an open letter Monday to the Republican governor calling on him to spend the money on Nebraska-based public health labs and health care providers.

“During this economic crisis it is also vitally important that every dollar we have be prioritized for reinvestment into Nebraska to strengthen our existing health care infrastructure,” said the letter signed by state Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh, Carol Blood, Megan Hunt and Rick Kolowski.

The senators said Nomi hasn’t yet delivered the contractually required number of daily tests or met the 48-hour turnaround time for test results.

When Ricketts announced the contract on April 21, he said the partnership would allow the state to test up to 3,000 residents per day after a five-week ramp-up period. The ramp-up started about three weeks ago and the companies haven’t yet reached that goal. And in the hard-hit Grand Island area, some residents have waited longer than 48 hours for their results.

At his weekday coronavirus news conference, Ricketts said it wasn’t practical to pump more money into Nebraska’s permanent testing facilities at the state public health lab or the University of Nebraska Medical Center because both have reached their capacity and neither facility has space for additional equipment. He argued that state officials had to act quickly to secure the contract with Nomi and the other companies or they might have lost the opportunity to provide more tests.

“This is new for all of us, right?” Ricketts said. “You’re not going to find a lot of companies that have tons of experience in testing in a pandemic, since this is the first one we’ve had in 100 years. So on the face of it, the senators’ statement is ludicrous.”

He later added: “I don’t understand why they don’t want more testing here in the state. We found a way to be able to do it. They should be happy we’re doing more testing.”

State officials have set up three mobile TestNebraska testing sites so far in hard-hit Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island, using equipment and test kits purchased from the companies. A fourth site was set to open Monday in Schuyler.

Ricketts said the state received 2,358 test results from the sites last week, and 80 of those were positive for the virus.

He said demand for the tests overwhelmed the Lincoln and Omaha sites on Friday, and not everyone was able to get tested. Callers also overloaded the state’s new TestNebraska hotline, which didn’t have enough staff members to answer calls.

“We just ask for Nebraskans’ patience as we go through this process,” he said.

Meanwhile, Nebraska health officials reported two more COVID-19 deaths in the state in their daily briefing, bringing the state’s death toll from the disease to 98.

Of the two deaths reported Sunday, one was in Douglas County. No information was immediately available on the second death.

The state also reported more confirmed cases of COVID-19. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said the number of confirmed cases in the state increased by more than 80 on Sunday, to 8,315. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.

Categories: Coronavirus, Nebraska News, News