AUSTIN, Texas -- Six Texas public health labs are now capable of testing for the new coronavirus, state officials announced Thursday, as the number of infected Americans continues to climb and the nation’s testing capacity struggles to keep up.
Another four labs are expected to begin testing nose and mouth swabs from patients to determine if they have the virus, Gov. Greg Abbott said, but capacity remains limited.
The state lab in Austin can only test samples from up to 26 patients per day, while labs in Houston and El Paso can test up to 15 samples daily, officials said. Labs in Dallas, Lubbock and Fort Worth are also ready to begin testing.
“This new ability to provide testing in the state will shorten the time to get test results and will help public health take the appropriate steps,” Abbott said.
Texas’ testing capacity is limited because of a shortage of testing materials and lab personnel, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Officials said that in coming weeks, the state lab network would be able to handle more than 125 tests per day.
“As good as it is, testing is a very precious resource,” agency head John Hellerstedt said. “We want to make sure that we’re testing folks in a way that is going to best serve to protect the public in Texas.”
Federal health officials this week broadened the criteria for who may be tested for the virus as more public labs gain the ability to test for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Anyone who wants a test may get one so long as a doctor agrees, under guidance published Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Federal officials urged doctors to “use their judgment” when deciding if a patient merits testing and should consider symptoms as well as travel history and the possibility of close contact with people who tested positive for the coronavirus disease. Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing, similar to seasonal flu. Doctors should rule out other causes of respiratory illness before ordering a coronavirus test, according to the guidance.
“Clinicians should use their judgment to determine if a patient has signs and symptoms compatible with COVID-19 and whether the patient should be tested,” federal health officials wrote this week.
Two new patients in the Houston area tested positive for travel-related coronavirus Thursday, bringing the total number of Texas cases outside of a federal quarantine site in San Antonio to three. Officials said there is not yet evidence of “community spread” in Texas and all patients were believed to have contracted the virus overseas.
Health officials urged people to take preventive measures such as hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home when sick.
“By and large, the general public is responding to this exactly the way they should be responding to it,” Abbott said. “They’re taking it serious but not panicking.”
Texas has the largest number and share of uninsured residents out of any state, with roughly 18% of residents lacking health coverage, according to the U.S. Census.
Hellerstedt said those people should avoid going to the emergency room for non-urgent care and encouraged them to call a state helpline to find nearby free or reduced-cost clinics.
“If you’re not clinically ill, there ought to be ways to arrange in advance to get people seen at a variety of resources that exist all over the state,” he said.