The Arkansas Department of Health confirmed this evening a report in Politico that the state is considering eliminating COVID-19 testing before elective surgery because of the severe shortage of chemicals needed to conduct the tests. “We are evaluating the positivity rate and considering whether this is beneficial or not,” spokesman Gavin Lesnick said.

The shortage of reagents has been a problem at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, which has seen a surge of cases. The hospital is urging people to use alternative sites, such as the county health unit. 

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(CORRECTION: Natalie Hardin, a spokesperson for the hospital, said Washington Regional is not urging the use of alternate sites. She said there has been confusion over the matter locally and, in response, Washington Regional has issued a notice that it testing anyone who is showing symptoms, who has come into direct contact with symptomatic patients, who is scheduled for surgery or who is deemed high-risk by their physician, including nursing home residents. Persons with symptoms are tested at Washington Regional Urgent Care in Bradley Medical Plaza; others are tested at the hospital’s drive-through clinic on North Hills Boulevard.)

Asked about the shortage on Monday, Washington Regional issued a response:

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As we are all aware, Northwest Arkansas and a substantial portion of our nation are experiencing a significant increase in the number of individuals infected with COVID-19, as well as increased hospitalizations. Health experts are in agreement that proper management of the pandemic will require significantly more testing and prompt contact tracing of those who receive a positive result. Regrettably, and as has been reported on extensively in the national media, testing capacity and supplies are challenged. Washington Regional is working diligently to secure and preserve access to testing media to ensure that its patients and workforce are appropriately screened and protected. Shortages in testing supplies and the inability on the part of all components of our public health system to conduct timely and extensive contact tracing mandates that testing resources be triaged to the areas of greatest need.

                                                                                                                                            Increased testing has also put such a demand on commercial laboratories that getting results in a timely fashion is a problem as well, with reports coming in after several days, rather than the 24-48 hour turnaround they were once able to achieve. Quest Diagnostics, for example, has announced that it will run samples from persons needing emergency surgery, hospitalized patients and health care workers first because of the reagent shortage. Others will have to wait. The farther out the result, the less effective contact tracing is in stopping the virus.

Contact tracing’s difficulties extend to manpower, as well. General Dynamics is taking applications for case investigators and contact tracers for the Health Department but only 83 have been hired so far out of an anticipated total of 350, Governor Hutchinson announced Monday. (They will be added to a team of 200 workers at the health department.) A second contract with the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care for additional workers has not yet been approved by the legislature.

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Asked about the time it takes for persons to be notified of their COVID-19 test results, Lesnik said those who test positive “will receive a call from a nurse in 3 to 5 days.” Asked about a Fayetteville case that did not receive notice of a negative test for two weeks, Lesnik said those testing negative will get a letter “within 3 to 4 days, though it can take longer to receive a letter.”