Montana to Expand COVID-19 Surveillance Testing

The state has partnered with Montana State University for asymptomatic surveillance testing

By Maggie Dresser

Gov. Steve Bullock announced on Wednesday that the state will partner with Montana State University to conduct surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals for COVID-19 and says the state is also working to assist local governments with the next round of federal stimulus.

As early as next week, Montana State University will begin a pooled sampling method for surveillance asymptomatic testing, which will test four different samples at once to allow for an increased capacity, Bullock said. Jason Carter, the university’s vice president of research, will organize the operation to test up to 500 individuals per day.

“We have found a Montana solution to help the state resolve its testing capacity shortage,” Montana State University President Waded Cruzado said.

In collaboration with Department of Public Health and Human Services, which will continue handling symptomatic testing and has consistently tested 1,000 individuals per day, the capacity is projected to increase by three to four times, Bullock said.

The state had been collaborating with Quest Diagnostics, a laboratory company based in New Jersey, which has temporarily stopped taking Montana’s community surveillance samples due to backlogging. Samples are currently taking weeks to process.

But with the state’s new MSU partnership, the governor is confident tests will now have an “acceptable” turnaround time.

“We don’t want to get back to a point where it takes weeks for folks to receive back their test results as has been the case with Quest as of late,” Bullock said. “We also don’t want to be left high and dry again in the event a national demand for testing puts a state like ours on the backburner.”

The state is also finalizing a contract with Mako Medical, a laboratory based in North Carolina, which plans to run at least 1,000 tests per day at $100 per test.

Montana’s test target is 60,000 tests per month, which the state surpassed with 62,500 tests in the last four weeks, Bullock said.

Additionally, Bullock discussed the potential uses for the next round of the federal COVID-19 stimulus, which could include reimbursing local governments as part of the $800 million that the state has allocated to date, including $300 million for “anticipated costs connected to COVID-19.”

Other potential areas of funding include health care, continued testing, unemployment insurance benefits, K-12 schools and the Paycheck Protection Program, which Congress may not decide until next month, Bullock said.

“Over $100,000 has been paid out the door to grant programs with dollars going out to all 56 counties,” Bullock said. “The Montana Department of Commerce has sent out as many each day as it does in an average year.”

The Business Stabilization Grant has been the highest demanded program and has awarded $6 million to help more than 7,000 businesses cover rent and utilities, Bullock said.

The new relief package “has to either provide new dollars or allow access to former dollars,” Bullock said.

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