EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — El Paso plans to expand COVID-19 testing by June 1, with the goal of testing 5% of the population by the end of the month.
“We’ve expanded our testing 32% since April. We’ve tested 2% of our population, we want to increase that to 3% and the following month to 5%,” City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said. “(We’re) testing another batch of essential workers […] hope to have data analyzed by May 18 for review prior to expanding to the general workforce.”
El Paso City-County Health has recorded 1,340 COVID-19 cases and 33 fatalities as of Sunday. The health department this week plans to open 10 new test sites and is working with partners like CVS pharmacies and area school districts to open additional sites later. The city previously established a testing partnership with Walmart.
Other budding partnerships include the state rapid response team and the University of Texas at El Paso, which will back up the health department with additional testing capacity.
“We’re expanding our current lab capacity … the UTEP lab is expected to be up and running by the end of May,” Gonzalez said during a presentation to the City Council on Monday. “Once operational, we can process 500 samples in an eight-hour shift, with results available in 24 hours.”
El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino said expanding coronavirus testing will remain a necessity for this border community for the foreseeable future.
“Long-term, we know this is going to be with us for months. … As flu season comes, we want to be ready,” he said, given that the symptoms for both illnesses “mimic each other.”
Up until a few days ago, testing was often limited to symptomatic patients (those with dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing, etc.), first responders and others exposed to the infected. D’Agostino said those policies are set by higher levels of government, but added that new guidance is beginning to open up the tests to the asymptomatic in certain sites.
The fire chief said new testing locations were picked by local officials. They may or not coincide with the ZIP codes were most cases have been reported in El Paso — 79912, 79936 and 79938 — but they address problem areas at the neighborhood level.
Despite the fact that 90% of the tests conducted so far in El Paso have turned up negative, the increased testing will likely turn up more people who have or have had COVID-19, D’Agostino said. That’s going to allow government entities to make informed decisions as to how fast to continue reopening the economy safely, he added.
Gonzalez said the city has also partnered with area business groups to help merchants comply with hygiene, capacity and social distancing measures required after the state conditioned their reopening. That information is being tailored according to industry, he said.