FARGO — Sanford Health is now set up to perform coronavirus testing, and all of its clinics and hospitals will be able to send specimens with results available in 24 to 48 hours.

The announcement Monday, March 23, comes as health providers and public health officials are widely hampered by the unavailability of testing supplies and delays in obtaining results.

But efforts to ramp up testing capacity and eliminate backlogs are progressing, health providers said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced that 30 of 300 delayed test results sent to a private lab in California have come back, with one positive case, but no details including the location of the infected person.

That brings to 33 the number of people who have tested positive in North Dakota among 1,400 tests, the governor said.

Public health experts have said testing is critical in identifying those who are infected with the coronavirus so they can be isolated and their contacts traced to curb the spread of the contagious virus.

Sanford's ability to perform its own laboratory tests in Sioux Falls, S.D. — with a capacity of almost 400 tests per day — will help to provide quicker results, that will benefit not only patients but public health officials tracking the virus’ spread, Sanford said.

“This was a tremendous effort on the part of our team to rapidly validate and launch our own internal testing,” said Dr. Allison Suttle, chief medical officer for Sanford Health. “Our testing will deliver faster results, enabling us to provide responsive care and keep our patients and staff safe.”

Before gaining its own capability to test, Sanford’s tests were sent to the North Dakota Department of Health or commercial laboratories. Sanford will continue to use these outside labs as needed for any overflow testing.

To get a test, Sanford patients must meet criteria defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including:

  • active lower respiratory symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat and headache

  • contact with someone who has a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, or

  • recent travel to a high-risk, Level 3 country as determined by the CDC.

If patients are experiencing symptoms, they should call their primary care provider instead of going directly to a clinic.

Sanford is also offering e-visits for COVID-19 care in Minnesota and the Dakotas. An e-visit involves an online questionnaire about symptoms that patients complete from home. A Sanford provider will review and respond within four hours with a treatment plan or prescription, or instruction to be seen in-person for further evaluation or testing.

Essentia Health, following guidance issued by the Minnesota Department of Health to be more focused in testing, is limiting testing to the most susceptible to infection, such as patients in the hospital, those in congregate living arrangements such as long-term care, health-care workers and first responders.

“We recommend patients schedule an e-visit or call our toll-free number if they are concerned about COVID-19 symptoms,” says Essentia Health infectious disease physician Rajesh Prabhu. This allows schedulers to screen for key symptoms.

Essentia’s COVID-19 hotline is 1-833-494-0836. E-visits can be scheduled by visiting EssentiaHealth.org.

Meanwhile, Burgum has warned that there are likely more coronavirus cases in Cass County than the one case that was previously confirmed.

Sanford sent the 300 tests to Quest Diagnostics, an independent lab in California that has been overwhelmed by the volume of incoming samples. The test results were originally supposed to be returned in three days, but that has grown to seven or eight days.

Once the complete results of the remaining 270 tests come back, likely in daily batches of 30 or 40, Burgum said the number of known cases in Cass County will very likely increase.

The people still waiting for the test results from California have been isolating at home and recovering, the governor said.

Sanford is expecting to receive the rest of the test results from California very soon. The results from private labs are reported to state health officials once available.

The North Dakota Department of Health's lab can analyze almost 600 tests per day, with results in 24 hours, and testing supplies are adequate, said Nicole Peske, a department spokeswoman.

"We're getting shipments on a regular basis," she said. "There are plans in place to increase testing capacity."

North Dakota's testing priority is similar to Minnesota's, focusing on those hospitalized with a respiratory illness, those living or working in congregate settings, health care workers and testing for public health and contact tracing.

Minnesota has eliminated its coronavirus testing backlog, in part with help from Mayo Clinic.

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