FILE - In this March 24, 2020, file photo, doctors and other healthcare workers with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine suit up in personal protective equipment before taking patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing location in Las Vegas. UNLV Medicine, the clinical arm of the UNLV School of Medicine, started conducting COVID-19 testing by appointment for people who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Health officials announced plans on Wednesday to expand coronavirus testing capacity in Nevada after the number of residents taking tests daily fell over the course of August.
Nevada reported 253 additional coronavirus cases and 20 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the statewide totals to 66,666 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,250 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The number of newly confirmed cases reported daily has decreased since peaking above 1,400 on July 15, a trend that officials attribute, at least partially, to the state's face-covering mandate and limits on large gatherings. But the number of tests reported has decreased week-by-week as well, from more than 49,000 in the third week in July to less than 27,000 last week.
In the Reno area, officials said Wednesday that they had entered into a new contract with Charles River Lab, hoping to reduce the coronavirus test processing backlog. Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick said since the lab started handling specimens a couple days a week from the district's drive-thru testing sites, the turnaround time had dropped to an average of two to three days. Renown Regional Medical Center also has established a new testing lab.
Clark County officials announced Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would be providing 60,000 additional tests over a two-week period starting Aug. 31 as part of a surge program for virus hot spots. The program has previously supplemented testing capacity in Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
The expanded test capacity and efforts to expedite processing follow weeks of worry about the future of federal funding for state National Guards assisting in pandemic response, which expired Aug. 21. In early August, Brig. Gen. Michael Hanifan, assistant adjutant general of the Nevada Army National Guard, told Politico that the Guard, which conducts about 25% of Nevada's testing, could not continue its work unless federal funding is extended.
Nevada COVID-19 response director Caleb Cage cautioned against seeing the surge testing program as more than a temporary boost.
"It's not going to be a long-term solution," he said.
Throughout the pandemic, Nevada officials have repeatedly deferred to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an almost reflexive manner, but on Wednesday both Cage and Gov. Steve Sisolak bristled at the agency's decision to relax guidelines that previously recommended individuals who come in close contact with coronavirus get tested regardless of symptoms.
Nevada will continue to recommend individuals who have come into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 get tested, even if they're asymptomatic.
Cage said Nevada had no warning ahead of the "somewhat sudden" guideline and worried that it undermined the state's efforts to strengthen its contact tracing and encourage testing. Given the "telling" signal sent by the decision to locate a surge testing program in Las Vegas, he said he didn't understand the decision to relax guidelines.
Dr. Ishan Azzam, Nevada's Chief Medical Officer, said continued testing of asymptomatic individuals is vital to slowing the spread of the virus "especially due to the fact that a significant number of transmissions can come from people not experiencing symptoms."
In other COVID-19 developments Wednesday, a Sparks elementary school became the 12th school in Washoe County with a confirmed case.
Dick emphasized that children should not be attending school if they are awaiting test results. Washoe County schools opened last week with a hybrid schedule that combines in-class and distance learning.
"If you felt like it was important to get a test, we feel it is important to wait to understand whether you are positive or not before you resume normal activities," Dick said.
All Clark County students are taking classes remotely. AP writer Scott Sonner contributed from Reno