State preempts county access to COVID-19 testing

Pima County was on the verge of finalizing an agreement with Arizona State University to access saliva-based testing for COVID-19 when the state swooped in and landed a $12.7 million deal that maxed out testing capacity, leaving the county in the lurch.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the county was looking to utilize the saliva testing in congregate care settings such as assisted living facilities and nursing homes. He said the saliva-based test from ASU's Biodesign Institute allows for tests to be administered without personal protective equipment, saving time and resources.

The institute developed the first saliva-based test in the state which allows for easier gathering of samples, as opposed to the nasal swab tests, and lower costs in administering testing. The test is as accurate if not more so than the nasal swab test, according to the institute.

Huckelberry said the testing method allows for pooling tests. Pooling is where 10 or 15 people are tested and their samples are combined and tested all at once, if the lot comes back negative then no further testing is needed, if it comes back positive then each individual would be tested again. Pooling is thought to save time and speed up the rate of testing.

Huckleberry said the county was talking with ASU since early June, before the state did. He said that since the state stepped in the Biodesign Institute apologized for having to shift its capacity to the state but that they were hoping to open another line of testing in the next month to accommodate the county.

A spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday indicated the state is looking to expand the new testing method.

“The intention here is to expand this type of testing to more places,” Patrick Ptak, communications director for the governor’s office, said. “Right now it’s in our hardest hit areas in Maricopa County but the intention is to expand this to more testing sites in more days of testing in the weeks and months ahead.”

Huckleberry sent a letter to Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, requesting a “reasonable share” of the testing but had not heard back from the department as of Monday.

The ADHS website says the agency is “providing free saliva diagnostic testing for COVID-19 in high-need, underserved communities around the state.” Testing was held July 11 and July 14 on Phoenix’s west side, appointments were  booked for both days.

Neither ADHS nor ASU’s Biodesign Institute responded to questions regarding the saliva testing.

Huckelberry said the county continues to work with Paradigm Laboratories to decrease the turnaround time on viral testing and to facilitate test results to Maximus Health Services, which was recently selected to provide contact tracing to the county.