State lab isn’t relying on ‘TestIowa’ machines to process COVID-19 test results

DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday said the state lab is still in the process of validating testing machines designated for Iowa’s new testing initiative, more than a week after testing launched.

The $26 million “TestIowa” contract promises 540,000 tests—as much as 3,000+ per day when at full capacity—and also provides 10 testing machines to run diagnostic tests. The State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa is in receipt of the machines but they have not yet passed muster, so lab staff aren’t relying on them to process TestIowa testing.

Instead, staff at the lab are running the tests twice: once through TestIowa machines and again through the lab’s ex machines they have been using for other coronavirus testing to ensure accuracy.

“I have complete confidence in Dr. Pentella and the State Hygienic Lab to complete the process. They’re not going to validate it until… they’re comfortable that it meets the criteria that it needs to meet,” Reynolds said during a Monday news conference.

A spokesman for Dr. Michael Pentella, who is the director of the lab, did not specify an exact time when the machines will be validated, saying instead in a statement that they’re working to complete that process “as soon as possible.”

“The State Hygienic Lab is still working to validate the Test Iowa equipment, a routine, data-driven part of bringing new equipment online, and will complete that process as soon as possible,” the statement said, adding that staff are working around the clock to meet testing demands.

Gov. Kim Reynolds first unveiled TestIowa, which is run by Utah-based companies, on April 21; the first drive-thru testing site opened April 25 in downtown Des Moines. Two other sites are operating in Waterloo and Sioux City.

Reynolds said Monday that more than 17,000 tests were administered to Iowans last week and acknowledged that the back log of tests would be cleared by end of the day Monday. The state reports more than 9,700 COVID-19 cases and 188 deaths as of Monday.

“So we got about 900 to 1,000 through yesterday from the TestIowa, and we should complete the backlog today so then we’ll be back on track. You saw the numbers from the weekend—they were really able to process a lot of the tests and to get us caught up,” Reynolds said.

A spokesman for the governor’s office did not return a request for comment about how many TestIowa tests have been given across all testing sites. And it’s unclear how many TestIowa results have been processed and reported in daily case counts.

State officials say they aren’t going to separately release TestIowa results; instead, they will be lumped together with other testing results.

“[Pentella at the State Hygienic Lab] is not going to run equipment if he doesn’t have confidence in the equipment and its performance,” said Sarah Resietter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health. “So there’d be no reason to separate out TestIowa results separate from any other test results because the test Iowa equipment is going through the exact same kind of validation that all of the other tests that are happening have done.”

This comes as local report in by the Salt Lake City Tribune questions the accuracy of test results from the TestUtah program, after which TestIowa is modeled. Reynolds has expressed confidence in the reliability of the tests.