Quick test machines to help Missoula health rapidly diagnose COVID-19

A Tai Chi class social distances during its morning exercise in Missoula on Thursday. The City-County Health Department has added a second Abbott quick-test machine to its arsenal to aid in local testing. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula County on Thursday approved a $34,000 contract with the City-County Health Department and Abbott Rapid Diagnostics to secure a machine capable of returning COVID-19 test results on the same day.

The addition of the quick-test machine and related supplies will bring to two the number of units used by the health department to rapidly diagnose signs of the virus.

“In order to increase capacity, because the Abbott has the quick-test and benefit of getting same-day results, it has the down side of limitations on how many tests you can run in a day,” said health officer Ellen Leahy. “We wanted to have more capacity than just the one Abbott.”

The health department received the first Abbott from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services and has done some testing with it. The machines must be validated with the state reference lab for at least one month before going into service.

Leahy said one final piece of equipment is needed to put the machines to daily use. While they won’t replace the current approach to testing via swabs, they will enhance the county’s ability to test and get results back quickly.

That could help avoid the challenges encountered last month when test labs faced a significant backlog in returning results.

“It was a black hole of test results. Not only was that frustrating to the public, it left us at the health department flying blind,” Leahy said. “If you can’t identify someone who has COVID, you can’t identify who their contacts are to contact trace and quarantine. One of your major control measures are lost.”

The machine from the state includes up to 240 test kits a week, though that will depend upon supply. The cost of the second Abbott is largely due to its required test kits, Leahy said, which accounts for the $34,000 contract.

“If you rent it and sign an agreement that you will purchase within a year at least 900 test kits, you actually don’t pay the rental,” she said. “We chose that option, and I have no reason to believe we won’t use 900 test kits in a year.”

Leahy said the quick-test machines will be used for symptomatic patients only. An exception could be made under certain circumstances, including an infection among front-line workers.

She said local hospitals are using a similar approach.

“They want to know on a health worker, for example, if they’re testing positive,” Leahy said. “They want to remove them from a certain environment right away and not wait three or four days. We may be able to do that with some of our higher risk settings or clusters that could occur.”

The University of Montana has an Abbot machine as well and on Thursday, during his state of the university address, President Seth Bodnar said the campus community has a COVID plan in place.

“COVID-19 has forced our campus community to make rapid changes to nearly every aspect of UM life,” Bodnar said. “Our team at Curry health, along with faculty in the School of Public and Community Health Services, built a testing system and a contact tracing protocol in collaboration with Missoula city-county public health, that allows us to quickly identify cases of COVID-19 and mitigate spread.”