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AUGUSTA, Maine — With Maine aiming to triple its coronavirus testing capacity by the end of next week, doctors are relieved that more will be diagnosed while warning that more protective equipment will be needed to treat an influx of patients.
A testing partnership with IDEXX Laboratories in Westbrook will allow the state’s lab to run up to 7,000 tests a week, officials announced Thursday. The company is also loaning the state a testing instrument to allow the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct more tests, adding to another instrument the agency has purchased.
The expansion will allow the state to stop prioritized testing for more vulnerable populations, like health care workers and those with underlying medical conditions. It also means more evaluations in congregate care settings and the ability to conduct randomized testing. It is a key piece in Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ economic reopening strategy.
But doctors are still awaiting new state guidelines on testing and their top Maine advocacy group said supplies of testing equipment and protective gear will need to increase simultaneously as more sick patients come into offices and other restrictions on care lift.
The decision to test a patient will still be left up to medical providers when prioritization goes away, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said Friday. The state will provide more instructions on testing when the U.S. CDC and the Infectious Disease Society of America update recommendations, he said. The way providers submit tests to the state will not change.
The expansion will ease the frustration doctors feel when they cannot give patients a definitive diagnosis, said Noah Nesin, vice president of medical affairs for Bangor-based Penobscot Community Health Care. The certainty that comes with a test can also help patients who live with those vulnerable to the virus make decisions on how to work or travel.
“Even if someone is going to stay home, knowing if they’re positive gives them a better sense of control of their circumstances than saying, ‘You’re probably positive and you should act like it,’” he said.
Nesin said his system is currently working on expanding in-house capacity to test those who are asymptomatic or less vulnerable while sending higher-priority patients to the state and affiliate Northern Light Health.
Limited testing has been a hallmark of the pandemic nationally but interest in getting results should surge among doctors and patients once expansion is in place, said Dan Morin, a spokesperson for the Maine Medical Association, an interest group for physicians.
That should be coupled with more personal protective gear — items also in limited quantities across the country — for hospitals and private doctors, he said. The additional protective gear will be especially important as elective care begins to ramp back up, he said, after Mills’ reopening plan allowed for providers to start giving more care this month.
“There’s been such strict guidelines until now,” Morin said, “and now that the state is broadcasting its increased capacity, people are going to demand and want tests.”
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