Although demand for COVID-19 testing appears to be waning in the Rio Grande Valley, it’s doubtful we’ll see any end to long lines of people having a cotton swab poked up their noses anytime in the near future.
Dr. John Krouse, dean of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, says the university has seen a decrease at both its sample collection site and the lab that processes the samples.
“Things have dropped off, I would say, a good 40% on average in terms of the testing volume that we’ve had,” he said.
The UTRGV testing drive-thru was testing close to 500 people a day a few weeks ago, but is now down to about 300 daily. The university lab that processes highly accurate PCR tests from the Valley and other parts of the state has gone from processing a peak of 1,500 tests a day to about 800 now.
Numbers from Hidalgo County also appear to reflect that decrease. Between Aug. 10 and 13 the county reported 2,572 additional administered tests. Four weeks ago, between July 13 and 16, the county reported an additional 8,404 tests.
As of Aug. 14, the county reported 424 pending COVID-19 tests. It reported 1,266 pending tests on July 14 and 1,087 pending tests on June 14.
Krouse says he thinks a decrease in testing demand is likely a good sign.
“I don’t think it’s an issue that people aren’t getting tested at all, because hospitalizations are down,” he said. “That’s a good number, if you look at it over the last 10 days, it’s started to drift down. ICU beds have started to drift down.”
The situation, Krouse said, is similar to a decline other hotspots have seen prior to quiet periods in the pandemic.
“I’m guardedly optimistic that we may be headed in that direction,” he said.
A decrease in test demand isn’t necessarily a good thing. Department of State Health Services Regional Director Dr. Emilie Prot said Friday that she had noticed a decline in testing from contracted groups from the state and military testing sites, a decline viewed negatively.
“I had attributed it to Hurricane Hanna and people working on their homes post Hurricane Hanna. So we’ve seen a slight decrease in the number of people showing up to get tested,” she said. “There might be other reasons too but we’re starting to see these numbers slowly come up (to) before Hurricane Hanna numbers — so kind of pre-Hurricane Hanna — which is good. We must test and testing is essential for us to understand where we are in the outbreak.”
Either way, the experts agree that the pandemic is a long way from being over — and we might not even be through the worst of it.
“I think we are all worried about the winter, and I think everybody suggests that there may be another peak coming,” Krouse said. “I would think that’s probably going to be correct.”
The university’s testing infrastructure will be there to meet that peak, Krouse said.
“We really have invested in infrastructure and personnel at the medical school. We’re not going to scale that back until we’re really out of the woods,” he said.
According to Krouse, the July spike didn’t even push the university’s pandemic programs to their limit. He says the university’s lab never reached its capacity for 2,000 tests a day and never stopped turning around results in a 24-hour period. He said the drive-thru collection site, which employs 30 people and operates two shifts daily, could be expanded to three shifts, a step that hasn’t yet been taken.
Other testing programs are currently being developed now, Krouse said. Partnering with Hidalgo County, the university plans to expand testing to rural areas and to create a mobile testing program that can test people in their homes.
“We’re working very closely with Hidalgo County, we have a great partnership with them,” Krouse said.
Speaking in a Futuro RGV video posted online earlier this week, Judge Richard F. Cortez echoed that sentiment, saying the county has funneled $5 million of federal grant money to the university.
“We would’ve been in big, big trouble without the medical school, because they helped us so much…” he said.
While Cortez says the county will continue to work with the university, it also hopes to invest some of those federal funds in developing its own testing facilities.
“We want our own forensic lab. We want to have our own tools of the trade, if you will, where we don’t have to go somewhere else to get it,” he said.
Cortez said being able to test and alert people about their COVID-19 status faster remains a priority, a priority shared by the hundreds of contract tracers, epidemiologists, lab technicians and healthcare workers at UTRGV who continue to work toward that goal.
“We’re ready for the next year or two if we need to be,” Krouse said. “I hope, as many people do, that we have a vaccine in that period of time and we’ll be able to really scale this down in the next year.”