A medical professional conducts a coronavirus anti-body test at a drive-thru testing site in the parking lot of Impact Church, Monday, May 4, 2020, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Credit: Ross D. Franklin | AP

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A new partnership with IDEXX Laboratories in Westbrook could triple Maine’s capacity to test for the coronavirus at its state laboratory in Augusta for at least the next three months, state health officials and Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday.

The partnership with IDEXX comes on the heels of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s emergency approval of a testing system developed by IDEXX’s Georgia subsidiary, OPTI Medical Systems.

The state is purchasing enough test kits to run 5,000 tests per week “for the foreseeable future,” adding to the state lab’s current capacity of 2,000 tests per week.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah described the partnership as a “game changer,” saying it will “allow us to move to a next level of testing that is crucial to monitoring the public health implications of a phased reopening of Maine businesses and gathering places.”

The expanded capacity will allow the state to abandon its testing prioritization strategy, which has focused on health care workers and first responders, those who are hospitalized and people in congregate living locations such as nursing homes and homeless shelters, the Mills administration said.

By the end of next week, anyone suspected of having the virus should be able to get a test if their doctor orders one, according to the Mills administration. It will also be able to engage in “sentinel testing,” through which doctors can randomly test patients to see if someone who may be asymptomatic may be carrying the virus. An early expansion of testing will happen in congregate care settings such as nursing homes, where Shah has said the state would like to conduct universal testing.

And, he said, the added testing capacity “will put us closer to our goal of ensuring that every medical provider in Maine who wishes to obtain a test for any patient can do so without concern for availability.”

The original agreement committed the state to purchasing a minimum of 3,000 test kits per week from IDEXX for 12 weeks at $20 each. But Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Friday the department decided to expand testing further after creating the initial contract. 

The cost of the tests will be around $1.2 million, paid for with federal funds provided under the CARES Act, but the contract allows for the state to purchase more tests if needed under the same terms. Maine received a $625 million installment of that funding last month.

IDEXX is also donating 3,500 test kits and loaning the state a testing instrument to allow the CDC to conduct more tests, adding to another instrument the agency has purchased.

Testing is a critical part of the state’s ability to gauge how safe it is to reopen, but patients who don’t fall into the high-risk groups — seniors, those with underlying health conditions as well as health care workers — have found it difficult to get tested.

Under Gov. Janet Mills’ four-stage reopening plan, health officials said they plan to look for downward trends in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations to determine if it is safe to progress through each part of the plan. If cases spike at any point, the four-stage plan could be slowed or even halted.

Having enough testing capacity — for doctors to order COVID-19 tests for their patients whenever they need to, and get results quickly — would ultimately allow residents to better know if they could go to work or visit with friends, help employers make decisions about their business operations and allow public health agencies to better track and respond to emerging outbreaks.

Estimates vary on how much additional testing is needed to gauge how the virus is spreading. The state has been testing about 400 residents per day in recent weeks, with the state lab in Augusta performing most of those tests.

Testing in the state has at times been hampered by a lack of materials. A shortage of chemical reagents used in testing caused the state to send some of its backlog to North Carolina-based LabCorp for a period last month. Maine also received far fewer rapid testing kits than it expected from Abbott Laboratories, whose quick turnaround times were heralded as a way to eliminate possible cases, although questions have since been raised about the tests’ reliability.

The OPTI Medical Systems test is the same type of test the CDC’s laboratory has been conducting, but it uses different equipment, Shah said. The access to the new test, he said, addresses the shortage of reagents the state has encountered.

Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen

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